Share

Opinion: Columnists

Sunday Reflection: W. James Antle III:Bloomberg's soda ban: The price of government health care

|

When a judge struck down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's large soda ban one day before it was to go into effect, America's nanny-in-chief was outraged. Bloomberg compared 16-ounce Mountain Dews with lead paint. He had to remind reporters, "This is not a joke."

It's easy to laugh at Bloomberg's sugary soda statism. New York Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling preferred to blast the regulations as "arbitrary and capricious," an apt description of a ban that applies to some merchants but not others.

But political busybodies will likely keep trying to regulate what we put in our bodies as the government assumes a larger share of health care expenses. The obese elephant in the room is that health care increasingly costs the taxpayers money. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have attributed one-tenth of national medical costs to health problems associated with obesity.

The more your health care is provided at taxpayers' expense, the more the rest of us will have to say about the personal choices that affect your health. Commentator Paul Hsieh has called it the "dangerous synergy between the nanny state and universal health care."

Despite the good intentions behind them, such proposals seem outrageous given the failure of Prohibition and the number of states ready to wave the white flag in the so-called war on drugs. But cities have faced little blowback from policies curbing public smoking and now are ready to regulate lifestyle choices with little secondhand impact.

Call it the New Illegal Coke.

Across the world, we've seen compulsory waist-size measurements, taxes on chocolate and bans on trans fats. Sodas were not far behind. It took public protests to dissuade the Massachusetts legislature from banning school bake sales.

In this morality tale, the beverage industry is the new Big Tobacco. One public health advocate who praised Bloomberg's ban declared soda manufacturers had had "free rein" for "over a hundred years." It was time for the government to step in.

As Bloomberg himself has acknowledged -- at times to protect his public health campaign from criticism that it was overly coercive -- the ban technically wouldn't stop New Yorkers from drinking as much soda as they want. They would just have to do so with more servings and at a greater cost. (Some way to help out the poor.)

The theory behind the ban is that overly large serving sizes contribute to obesity by causing people to consume more than they would otherwise. But the research on that isn't conclusive, with some studies suggesting the ease of obtaining less healthy food options may be a bigger factor than serving sizes.

As the public policy journalist Joseph Lawler put it, "Short of banning microwaves and freezers, it's not clear what Bloomberg could do to reverse the situation." He might more profitably lobby the federal government to abolish corn subsidies, which make it cheaper to sweeten sodas and offer double cheeseburgers on the dollar menu.

The larger question is whether a free society should ban, tax and regulate its way to public health. That might not be what the public thought it was bargaining for with Obamacare, but that is what we're likely to get. My weight is now your problem.

This is what Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., was getting at when he asked Elena Kagan, then President Obama's nominee for Supreme Court, if Congress had the constitutional authority to mandate that Americans eat required servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

"Sounds like a dumb law," Kagan sensibly replied. She suggested that perhaps it wouldn't have enough to do with Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce.

"What if I said that eating three fruits and three vegetables would cut health care costs 20 percent?" Coburn shot back. "Now, we're into commerce. And since the government pays 65 percent of all the health care costs, why isn't that constitutional?"

Based on the ruling against Bloomberg's soda mischief, courts may not yet be willing to embrace that argument. But the New York City experience shows it may not be so far-fetched for politicians.

One need not believe all lifestyle choices are equally healthy or valid to value a high level of freedom of choice. But Obamacare might make some freedoms too costly.

Perhaps you can't have Big Gulps and big government, too.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of "Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?"

View article comments Leave a comment