Many ridicule Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of large sugary drinks at restaurants, street carts and stadiums as nanny-state overreach.

What’s next? Banning _________? There have been lots of jokes. You can fill in the blank with your own example of silliness.

But the mayor is anything but silly. Nor are those on the City Council who back it bullying busybodies. This is a serious proposal that now has the backing of the Board of Health, which takes the mayor on further. The board wants to widen the ban to include large tubs of popcorn and milkshakes.

Nor is New York alone in its desired ban. Inspired by New York’s proposal, other cities are considering similar action.

While banning large sodas does have its comic appeal, there is something serious at stake. So what are the ethical arguments involved?

On the one side, opposing the bill is the argument against state paternalism. Parents have a legal and moral obligation to watch out for their children, but the state does not have a similar right in relation to its citizens. What it means to be an adult is having the right to make bad and foolish choices. So although the state may require parents to take proper care of their children, the state should have no role in forcing adults to take proper care of themselves. The slogan of choice should be, Buyer beware.

But this position overlooks a long line of consumer protection laws and regulations that few would consider repealing. We rely upon government to keep our drinking water potable and our food eatable. Most state governments require regular auto inspections and enforce seatbelt restraints.

These laws aren’t so much to protect us from ourselves as they are to protect us from avaricious and careless business practices. It is unfair and unrealistic to think that the average person has the wherewithal to know all that needs to be known to protect herself against such harm. We don’t expect everyone to know how to or care to check for pathogens in each forkful bearing putting it in the mouth.

Whatever one may think of the specific proposals before the Board of Health, the seriousness of the issue should be beyond dispute. There is an obesity epidemic in this country, with serious health and financial side effects. The extent of this health problem is astronomical.

Billions of dollars are poured into advertising fattening, unhealthy foods. Sugary drinks is one of the many culprits. So while people are responsible for what they eat, the food industry also needs to be held responsible for what they put before the public. Particularly insidious is the advertising aimed at children, who are least able to sort through fact from wishful thinking. And it can be devastating in poor neighborhoods, where large quantities of food and drink are often incentives enough to put reason and restraint to one side.

New York’s proposed ban does attempt to strike a balance. It doesn’t outlaw sugary drinks nor does it even limit the amount of sugary drinks that a person can consume at one sitting. All it does it limit the size of the containers. If a consumer wants a second, third or tenth soda, there is nothing to stop the person from refilling. What the ban would do is give the consumer pause. This will make only a dent in reducing obesity and its catastrophic side effects. But it is something and that is better than nothing.

You are reading

Am I Right?

What Would You Do if You Weren't Afraid?

How fear may be a good (or bad) thing

Intelligence Is No Bar to Irrationality

Highly intelligent people are as susceptible to irrationality as anyone else

Is Neuroscience Today's Phrenology?

Science can't tell us how to live a good life