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.

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