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February 21, 2024

Bioethics Corner: Can the government regulate your diet?

By SAAD ANJUM | October 26, 2013

The American Medical Association issued a statement that labeled obesity as a disease this past June. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the health consequences of this disease include: coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, endometrial, breast and colon cancers, hypertension and a host of other conditions.

According to the CDC, obesity has been on the rise in the last twenty years to the point that over one-third of U.S. adults and just under a fifth of children and adolescents are obese. To what extent should the government intervene in an attempt to curb this epidemic?

Known for his public health oriented measures, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has an ongoing campaign against obesity. In a controversial move, Mayor Bloomberg proposed a ban on restaurants, movie theaters, and other food vendors from the selling of sugar-laden beverages in sizes larger than sixteen ounces. Amid many other critics of the ban, Starbucks expressed its distaste for the regulation. Just before the regulation was to take effect, a judge struck down the ban. The ‘soda ban’ ruling has been appealed and the case is currently in the courts.

Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to curb obesity continue. On Wednesday, July 17, Mayor Bloomberg launched a new initiative to promote the use of stairs over elevators. The new non-profit Center for Active Design, is charged with encouraging more physical activity and providing better access to healthy food. Criticism of this latest mandate echoes that of the soda ban and other moves the mayor has made: while filled with good intentions, the government should not be imposing these sorts of rules that go too far in mandating how residents should live.

In contrast to Bloomberg’s restrictive mandates, the government of Dubai is offering an incentive for weight loss: gold. Officials are offering a gram of gold for every kilogram lost in the thirty-day weight loss challenge “Your Weight in Gold” that starts on Friday, July 19th.

Both the restrictive regulations and the incentives join the many different attempts—from health care insurance to healthy school lunches—governments are making in order to fight obesity and promote public health. Are any of these initiatives welcome? There are pros and cons to government intervention. For many in the U.S., the health benefits could be a matter of life or death; weighed against some lost freedoms. But, are there limits to the sorts of problems that governments ought to confront? Similarly, are there limits to extents that a government ought to go in in telling its citizens how to live?

If reducing obesity is an appropriate goal for a government, then the question about whether they should be using carrots or sticks in pursuit of this goal seems more a matter of practical efficiencies. In other words, if it’s okay for governments to take on obesity as a problem, they should use the best tools available.



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