Should the government help you lose weight?

A woman drinks an extra large soft drink from McDonald's in New York City. In an attempt by the administration to fight obesity, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to implement a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts.

Tess Vigeland: We talk a lot about choices on this program. You can choose to save or spend. You can choose to invest or not. This week the issue of consumer choice appeared front and center in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed banning giant-sized sugary drinks. Also this week Disney said it won't air ads for junk food during its programs.

Commentator Justin Wilson says that's one full plate of the nanny state.

Justin Wilson: When it comes to tackling obesity, everyone agrees that something should be done to confront the problem. But the billion dollar question is what role should the government play in reducing obesity rates?

Americans understanding of public health is at a crossroads. The original intent of public health regulations was to protect us from each other. That meant working on worthy causes like improving sanitation at meat-packing plants and developing vaccines to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

But with those problems largely contained, the public health paradigm has changed. Now many of those same regulators see it as their duty to protect us from ourselves.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent soda regulation rubbed many people the wrong way. In fact, a poll found that just 24 percent of Americans support his initiative. Our opposition to the paternalism of this policy isn't surprising; it stands in stark contrast to the ingrained sense of personal responsibility we share as a nation.

Mayor Bloomberg justified his plan by arguing that the $4 billion he estimates obesity costs the city gives him a mandate for action. But the problem is this: Life is risky. From the smallest of risks, like a shake or two of salt on your dinner, to the largest of risks, like going skydiving, everything we do "costs" society, but that doesn't mean the mayor or anyone else for that matter has a right to regulate it.

Obesity costs aren't any different than the billions of dollars that we spend on motorcycle accidents or slip-and-fall injuries, but you don't see the government banning motorcycles or mandating that pedestrians wear helmets. Those policies would undoubtedly save millions, if not billions of dollars, but we would never tolerate it because we recognize that some risks are, well, worth the risk.

Obesity is a product of personal irresponsibility. No one is forcing us to eat too much junk food or sit on the couch all day long and watch television. We're doing it to ourselves.

Since personal irresponsibility got us into this mess, it's going to take personal responsibility to get us out of it. That is the proper role of public health. Government should provide consumers with incentives, information and opportunities so that we can make smart choices and take responsibility for ourselves.

Vigeland: Justin Wilson is a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.

About the author

Justin Wilson is a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.
Log in to post19 Comments


CCF is one of the more active of several front groups created by Berman & Co., a public affairs firm owned by lobbyist Rick Berman. Based in Washington, D.C., Berman & Co. represents the tobacco industry as well as hotels, beer distributors, taverns, and restaurant chains. Hotels, motels, restaurants, bars and taverns together comprise the "hospitality industry," which has long been cultivated by the tobacco industry as a third party to help slow or stop the progression of smoke free laws. CCF actively opposes smoking bans and lowering the legal blood-alcohol level, while targeting studies on the dangers of meat & dairy, processed food, fatty foods, soda pop, pharmaceuticals, animal testing, overfishing and pesticides. Each year they give out the "nanny awards" to groups who, according to them, try to tell consumers how to live their lives. Anyone who criticizes any of the above is likely to come under attack from CCF. Its enemies list has included such diverse groups and individuals as the Alliance of American Insurers; the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons; the American Medical Association (AMA); the Arthritis Foundation; the Consumer Federation of America; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani; the Harvard School of Public Health; the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems; the National Association of High School Principals; the National Safety Council; the National Transportation Safety Board; the Office of Highway Safety for the state of Georgia; Ralph Nader's group, Public Citizen; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Over 40 % of the group's 2005 expenditure was paid to Rick Berman's public relations company, Berman & Co. for "management services. [1] As part of its operations, CCF runs a series of attack websites, including ConsumerFreedom.com, ActivistCash.com, CSPIscam.com (attacking the Center for Science in the Public Interest), Animal-Scam.com, FishScam.com, ObesityMyths.com, Sweetscam.com, PhysiciansScam.com and PetaKillsAnimals.com. [2]

Contributors to CCF have include the COCA-COLA Company, Cargill, Inc., Monsanto, Tyson Foods, Outback Steakhouse, Wendy's, Brinker International and Dean Foods.

Tige, It's bad enough that you're publishing corporate propaganda, but when you allow vested interests to hide behind a phony name like Center for Consumer Freedom you're either a useful idiot or complicitous with the duping of the public. One or the other. Either way, you should be ashamed.

Hi Marketplace
I am starting to get worried about who is controlling your editorial decisions. Recently, you have begun to feature “reports” from people and groups that appear to be so far off to one side (there are no food deserts, we choose to be obese are two that come to mind) that I wonder if you’ve lost your moral and ethical compass.

If you are going to feature one side of an argument, please at least feature the other side too. I think we beat your lack of investigative insight on the food desert program, so will not jump on you again there. However, letting someone come on and tell us that people are not influenced by advertising, are instinctively aware of the harmful effects of gluttony (or how much is too much) and, in general, are not pushed and prodded to purchase low food value, high caloric sugar-rush items at a cost that is far less than their high food value counterparts (e.g. Odwella) – shows a lack of journalistic integrity.

I am concerned that your next program will feature the lovely organization currently promoting their recent "study" showing Americans are not concerned with removing HFCS (google it) from their diet and would rather remove Soda as a food ingredient (yes, this is a conclusion of the report). They are now lobbying to have HFCS renamed, to remove any negative connotations.

Please – know who your viewers/listeners are, and provide a level of journalistic integrity above that of Fox. You do in most other areas, but are missing the mark in areas like those noted above.


Mr. Wilson’s argument against NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban oversized sugared soft drinks was typical right wing pabulum. It was heavy on ideology and light on facts. The facts are that it has been proven that sugar consumption is addictive, and that humans have great difficulty not consuming whatever portion of food and drink that is placed in front of them. Allowing fast food companies to push oversized drink sizes is not choice when the consumer is addicted to what is being offered. If Mr. Wilson is really concerned about choice he should support the concept of limiting the size of the cup being provided a customer, and if the customer then wants more the customer can then chose to get more. What Mayor Bloomberg is proposing is real choice, what Mr. Wilson is defending is the enablement of addiction.

You said Justin Wilson as associated with The Center for Consumer Freedom. The org says that it is "supported by restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers. From farm to fork, from urban to rural, our friends and supporters include businesses, their employees, and their customers." But they won't say how much money comes from "food companies." They avoid that question, saying only that "Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors. They are reasonably apprehensive about privacy and safety in light of the violence and other forms of aggression some activists have adopted as a 'game plan' to impose their views, so we respect their wishes." But they won't say who really pays their bills. Anybody wanna guess?

"Billions" on motorcycle accidents? Please provide documentation for that claim. And by the way, a little shake of salt is absolutely not a health risk. Sodium is overrated as a health boogeyman, except for a small cohort of people with higher sensitivity determined by genes. Otherwise, yes it's all about personal responsibility, and meaningful financial incentives to reward people who make healthier lifestyle choices is going to have more effect that a useless ban on random food and beverage products. Oh, and complete redesign of urban spaces to make walking and biking pleasant and desirable modes of transportation instead of hateful and dangerous chores.

The question NOT being asked: should corporations continue to be allowed to profit from heavily marketing "choices" that cause people to gain weight and become used to unhealthily high portions of sugar (of all kinds) and salt in their diets?

How many ads/hour in various types of media are there for highly sweetened sodas and food "products"? Those w/high levels of trans fat or other artificially hydrogenated fats? High levels of salt?

Why do corporations have UNLIMITED freedom to do so?

As far back as the 1890's owners of department stores in NYC talked of "creating demand" and today corporations of all kinds use whatever they can to "create demand" for their products. The goal: to sell products to make profits. There is no element of "personal choice" in there that I see, just a very strong desire to sell things to people using whatever means are available or to "create demand." Where's the element of personal choice in that?

How many other choices are there in the marketplace? How many vending machines are there selling garbage food & drink compared to those selling healthy food & drink? No information about those numbers in this discussion that I noticed. Ditto for what's on the shelves of most convenience stores as well as positioning of the product on the shelves (a marketing tool). How short on facts this interview/discussion is.

A SINGLE municipal government, that of NYC, would be doing would be regulating the sale of a product. It's not as if people won't still be able to buy highly sweetened sodas, now is it? And it's not some amorphous omnipresent "government" deciding that sodas won't be sold anymore, is it? Nope, just one mayor saying he wants to stop the sale of gargantuan servings of sodas.

Once again, the corporations selling the product run around as if the world is coming to an end at the tiniest sign of regulation of what is admittedly a pretty useless--even harmful--product, but very profitable to the corporations that sell it, of course.

Once again, the GOP stomped on NPR acts as corporate shill.

This interview is extremely biased in favor of unregulated corporate selling of unhealthy foods by whatever means the corporation chooses to use. Profits therefrom privatized, the COSTS to people externalized--as usual.

Gosh, the "personal irresponsibility" of consumers caused this problem? That's the sort of glib nonsense I'd expect from an industry group that wanted to prevent regulation at all costs. And lo and behold, one finds with even a bite-sized serving of research that the CCF's "advisory board is comprised mainly of representatives from the restaurant, meat and alcoholic beverage industries" (thank you, SourceWatch).

You'd almost mistake this piece for an editorial, rather than a DISCLAIMING of responsibility by the very entities that got us into this mess. Poor people live in food deserts where the only cheap food causes obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The businesses that make obscene profits selling them this garbage then resist any attempt at regulation or intervention. Rather than honestly saying, "Screw you, we want to keep getting rich from pink-slime burgers, trans-fat chips and carbonated sugarwater," they hide behind names like the Center for Consumer Freedom and claim to be fighting the good fight against the "Nanny State." But given the number of family poisoners at large in our communities, we could use a few more nannies.

interesting insight - I wonder if NPR remembered to check sources prior to the interview. I would have thought after the APPLE affair (and I don't like APPLE), that there would be more fact checking. At least a disclaimer noting who the CCF represents!


With Generous Support From...