Friday, December 28, 2012

Can the government make us happier by regulating what we eat and drink?

A guest post by Bridget Sandorford*
Introduction by Winton: The post comes at a time when some readers may be considering New Year's resolutions relating to what they eat and drink. When we have to make tough choices it is often tempting to think that governments ought to make life easier for us by introducing more regulation. The article has been written with particular reference to the US, but he issues raised are relevant in many countries, including Australia.
The post comes at an ideal time for me because it discusses an issue touched on in my book, 'Free to Flourish', published last week.
Bridget writes:
There have been a number of changes to the regulations surrounding the food and beverage industry in recent years, with the intention of cracking down on the nation's obesity epidemic. Fast-food chains have started posting fat and calorie counts directly on their menus, limits have been passed on the size of sugary drinks like sodas, and so-called "fat taxes" have been proposed as a surcharge on unhealthy foods and drinks.
All of these changes and proposals have been introduced as a way to curb the unhealthy eating habits that have become so ubiquitous in our culture and to stem the rising obesity numbers.
But is all this regulation really making us healthier? Happier? Here are a few reasons why it can't:
Spotty Regulation
The recent law in New York City banning sodas and other sugary drinks from being sold in containers over 16 ounces is a good example of the ineffectiveness of such programs. The ban, which will take effect in the spring, will only apply in restaurants, fast-food chains, theaters and other places that are under the regulation of the Board of Health. What that means is that if you really want a 32-ounce soda, you won't be able to get one when you're at a Broadway show, but you can get one by walking right next door to the 7-11.
Spotty regulation like this means that only some food or drinks will be targeted, and only in some cities, and will only affect some consumers. If measures such as these are to be effective, they have to be all-encompassing.
Personal Choice
Even with more wide-reaching regulation, bans and taxes will never be truly effective for one reason: Personal choice. If you live in New York and you want a 32-ounce soda, you can get one. You just have to buy two 16-ounce sodas -- and there's no rule against that. Fat taxes are never likely to be high enough to be cost prohibitive. Those who want the foods that  are taxed will spend less on other foods to afford them -- or, in the case of Denmark's fat tax, the citizens will just go to neighboring countries (or states) that don't have the tax to buy foods.
Personal choice will always be the trump card for any attempt to regulate or curb behavior. Even if penalties are imposed, they may not be a deterrent. The key is to get to the heart of the choice -- to find a way to change the behavior.
Food Culture
The reasons for our obesity epidemic are complex and include the current food culture. Not only have servings sizes increased, but the quality of foods has decreased. Fast food is considered acceptable dinner fare (as well as breakfast and lunch), and not enough people seem overly concerned about feeding children chicken nuggets and fries for a meal. Even foods that seem healthy have become overly processed and loaded with harmful chemicals. GMO foods, corn and soy are pervasive.
Education, a change in food-manufacturing regulations, and a shift in our food culture will help to solve our obesity problem. Forcing people to make the choices we want them to will not.
What do you think about regulations attempting to curb the consumption of unhealthy food and drinks, like container controls and fat taxes? Do you think they can be effective? Share your thoughts in the comments!

* Bridget Sandorford is a freelance writer and researcher for In her spare time, she enjoys biking, painting and working on her first cookbook.

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