Mayor Bloomberg's New York City health department has come in for repeated criticism in this space and elsewhere for crusading against salty and fattening foods through ad campaigns that manipulate viewer reactions in ways that border on the misleading and deceptive ("What can we get away with?" famously asked one official). They're at it again. On January 9, Gotham's for-your-own-good crew unveiled a new ad warning "Portions have grown. So has Type 2 diabetes, which can lead to amputations," dramatically illustrated with a photo of an obese man with a stump where his leg had been. But as the New York Times reports, city officials "did not let on that the man shown — whose photo came from a company that supplies stock images to advertising firms and others — was not an amputee and may not have had diabetes." Instead, they just Photoshopped his leg off, which certainly got the effect they were looking for, albeit at the cost of photographic reality. At an agency developing an ad campaign for a private company, someone might have advised adding a little fine print taking note that the picture was of a model and had been altered, lest the manipulation turn into the story itself, or even attract the interest of federal truth-in-advertising regulators. But the Bloomberg crew probably isn't worried about the latter, given that their constant stream of hectic propaganda is fueled by generous grants from the federal government itself. Such grants also helped enable a contemplated booze crackdown exposed by the New York Post this month—quickly backed off from after a public outcry—that would have sought to reduce the number of establishments selling alcohol in New York City.
While on the topic of nannyism, the Times also reported this week that Penn State researchers found that the fad for banning so-called junk food in schools had no apparent effect: "No matter how the researchers looked at the data, they could find no correlation at all between obesity and attending a school where sweets and salty snacks were available." Number of "food policy" types quoted in the article admitting "maybe we were wrong": zero.
Christopher Hitchens, a man of great passions and great talents, perhaps the greatest essayist of our age, has died. Among his lesser-known works was a Cato Institute talk, "Mayor Bloomberg's Nanny State," delivered at a seminar in New York City on December 10, 2004.
Ten years before that, in his still-thoroughly-leftist era, he offered us this backhanded compliment in the Nation of December 12, 1994:
During the lunacy of the Reagan period, I was impressed by how often it was the Cato Institute that held the sane meeting or published the thoughtful position paper.
Herewith "Mayor Bloomberg's Nanny State":
I often take the train from Washington, D.C., to New York and back. A few years ago they put the smoking car on the end of the train so nonsmokers wouldn't have to go through it to get to other parts of the train. And then the day came when they said, "We're taking that car off the train altogether." And I thought, "Now we've crossed a small but important line." It's the difference between protecting nonsmokers and state-sponsored behavior modification for smokers.Read the rest of this post »
And I thought there was insufficient alarm at the ease with which that was done. Because state behavior modification, no matter what its object, should be viewed skeptically at the very least. There's serious danger in the imposition of uniformity---the suggestion that one size must fit all.
When the complete ban on smoking in all public places was enacted in California, I called up the assemblyman who wrote the legislation and I said: "I've just discovered that bars are not going to be able to turn themselves into a club for the evening and charge a buck for admission for people who want to have a cigarette. You won't be able to have a private club. You won't even be able to have a smoke-easy, if you will, in California."
And he said, "That's right."
I said, "Well, how can you possibly justify that?"
Last week First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled "ChooseMyPlate.gov," an updating of the federal government's ongoing efforts to lecture us on how to eat. While the idea of nutrition recommendations from Washington, D.C. isn't itself new, the past couple of years have seen a lurch toward a more coercive approach, especially under the Obama administration, under pressure from a burgeoning "food policy" movement, as I explain in a new Daily Caller op-ed:
All sorts of nannyish and coercive ideas are emerging from that [movement] nowadays: proposals at the FDA to limit salt content in processed foods; mandatory calorie labeling, which poses a significant burden on many smaller food vendors and restaurants; new mandates on food served in local schools; advertising bans; and on a local level efforts to ban things like Happy Meals at McDonald’s. No wonder many parents, local officials and skeptics in Congress are beginning to say: Back off, guv. It’s my plate.
The fact is that the federal government's dietary advice has changed often through the years—the Washington Post had a great feature on past federal dietary guidelines, under which sweets and even butter held their place as food groups—and that government's recommendations have regularly proved wrong and even damaging, a point that Steve Malanga elaborates on in this City Journal piece ("Following the government’s nutritional advice can make you fat and sick.")
Yesterday, C-SPAN's Washington Journal had me on opposite Maya Rockeymoore of the group Leadership for Healthy Communities to discuss issues that ranged from the school lunch program to whether Washington should serve as an "arbiter" of contending dietary claims, an idea I didn't much care for. You can watch here.
This morning's question at Politico Arena is:
The New York Times reports that despite two decades of public health initiatives Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables. Healthy eating is a priority of First Lady Michelle Obama. Should those of us with less than Olympic-calibre physiques heed the first lady's dietary advice? Does this smack of Big Brother -- or more precisely Big Sister -- wading into personal decisions? Could voluntary preferences on food issues morph into government mandates?
Of all the "Washington elites" they surveyed, I was almost the only one to express skepticism about the First Lady's and the New York Times's expectations for the rest of us:
I was struck by that New York Times article on Saturday. The headline is "Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries." We Americans are just a constant trial to our elites. We cling not only to our religion and our guns but to our French fries. The government has TOLD us to eat vegetables, and yet we persist in eating tasty food. Soon we may be sent to our rooms without supper.
And then the reporter wrote, in this news story, "Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables." America to the New York Times reporting staff: We'll decide the proper tradeoff between taste, price, nutrition and so on. "Enough vegetables" is a subjective decision, not a fact.
More fundamentally, Why is it any of the federal government’s business how fit we are? We don’t need a national nanny.
The federal government has an important role in our society. Its primary function is national security, and it hasn’t been doing a very good job. It should focus on that.
Americans know that first they say you “should,” and the next thing you know they want to make it mandatory. Already people are talking about taxing junk food. And they’re filing suit against fast-food companies.
We teach our kids to take responsibility for themselves and to Mind Your Own Business -- the government should take that advice.
A lot of this is old-fashioned American Puritanism -- the idea that anything you enjoy is bad for you-- so they tell us don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat, recycle, practice safe sex, ride that bicycle.
A subversive page editor at the New York Times inserted a pull quote (in the print edition) reading "Besides, the taste, trouble and cost, what's the problem?" Exactly. We Americans are sorry for being such a disappointment to the first lady and the New York Times. But not that sorry.
What can I say about San Francisco's ban on vending machines for sugared soft drinks on city property?
I could say that a twelve ounce can of Coca-Cola has fewer calories than twelve ounces of whole milk, because it does -- 140 to 216.
I could say that you'll be even fatter if you substitute whole milk for Coke, ounce for ounce, because you will be.
I could say that the extra nutrients in milk don't do anything to make it less fattening, because they don't.
I could say that 12 ounces of soy milk has 198 calories, which is still well above Coke's 140.
I could even say that switching to skim milk doesn't help you all that much -- if you do the math, you'll find that there are 124.5 calories in 12oz of skim milk, compared, again, to 140 for Coke.
I could also point out that a tall Starbucks Frappuccino -- also 12 ounces, and not covered by the ban -- has 190 calories, largely from sugar and fat.
I could ask: Does anyone ever order a plain Frappuccino? A tall mocha Frappuccino has 220 calories.
Finally, I could point out that banning vending-machine drinks while leaving Starbucks untouched is a pretty rank example of class privilege at work -- my indulgences are sophisticated and upper-class, while yours are vulgar and prole.
And, I imagine I hardly need to make the case that this ban is the thin end of a wedge, and that comprehensive regulation of sugar, fat, and salt is on the way.
But really, it's a lot simpler than that. What I should say is that your body is yours. Liberals themselves would tell you just the same in many other contexts. It's yours to do with as you see fit. It's yours to use, and it's yours to use up, as Dan Savage once put it. (Can bans on risky sex be far behind?)
Part of being free is being free to make bad choices, to take risks, and to bear the consequences. Part of being free is that you, personally, may decide what you eat or drink. It's a liberty so elementary that our founders never even imagined that it would need protection, but today, it does. (These same founders also rioted when the British taxed their tea. Which I'm sure Parliament only did for their own good anyway.)
To be sure, there are many costs associated with socialized health care, and some of the choices we make will certainly raise those costs. That's one big reason why the nanny state is suddenly in the food business. But if we absolutely must have socialized health care -- a point I don't for a moment concede -- then I'd prefer to pay a little bit extra and keep all my other liberties, thanks.
The goal of a new Chinese government campaign is to "eradicate all social evils" and "advocate a healthy, civilized and high-minded lifestyle," according to the Washington Post. Some elements of the state just don't like the way the Chinese people are using their newfound freedom.
On a different level, we face the same arguments here in the United States. Both the Hillarys and the Huckabees in our world seek to fight "social evils" and lead us to "a healthy, civilized and high-minded lifestyle." The Huckabees focus on our souls, urging the government to stamp out sin and push us to do God's will (as they see it). The Hillarys often focus on our bodies, with campaigns against smoking, popcorn, sodas, salt, and all manner of "unhealthy lifestyles." Then again, the Hillarys do want to save our souls, as well, with campaigns to eradicate racism and sexism and spread the environmentalist gospel.
In China, economic freedom is giving people an opportunity to throw off old social rules and restrictions and to experiment with living their lives as they choose. Economic freedom has the same impact here, and in both countries there are powerful people who don't like the choices free people make.
No, that's not the name of a new TV series. We should be so lucky.
It's actually a good description of the government's approach to tobacco.
Instead of letting adults make up their own minds about costs and benefits of risky choices (which includes most things in life, such as crossing a street and eating a cheeseburger), nanny-state officials have decided to investigate menthol-flavored cigarettes. And since the Food and Drug Administration has been given authority over the tobacco industry and since the FDA's supposed purpose is to ensure drugs are "safe and effective," that almost certainly means this latest campaign will lead to either further restrictions on free speech or outright bans.
Here's a blurb from the Wall Street Journal:
Congress last year added the tobacco industry to the FDA’s regulatory mix and today a panel of health experts making up the agency’s new Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is kicking off a two-day meeting. First on the agenda: how menthol flavoring in cigarettes affects smokers’ habits. Small wonder that menthol is getting early attention, says the New York Times, which notes menthol butts account for almost a third of the $70 billion U.S. cigarette market.
After more meetings, the advisory panel will send recommendations to the FDA, which could eventually decide to ban menthol products or take steps to curtail their marketing.
One can only wonder how far down the slope we will slide. There already are attacks against fatty foods and sugary soft drinks. Both provide pleasure to many people, but that no longer means much in Washington. Will regulators, either at the FDA or elsewhere, eventually decide that anything linked to obesity must be regulated and/or taxed?
And now that government is going to pick up the tab for an even larger share of health costs, how long before the politicians use obesity-related costs as a major justification for further efforts to control our private lives? Maybe some day we will have a Federal Health Police to enforce daily exercise mandates? I better stop now before I give them any ideas.