The Ethics of Obesity « Ethics Blog

The Ethics of Obesity

March 18, 2013

Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on the sale of super size soft drinks was reversed last week by NY State Court. The court determined that the Mayor did not have the authority to impose such as ban. The Mayor is appealing that decision. This controversy brings to the forefront a discussion on how much power the government should be given by the people, assuming we live in a democracy. Governments by their very nature have a tendency to increase their power and control over citizens. Yet, without some form of government and authority, society would plunge into anarchy and chaos would follow.

In the dream world of the ultra conservative, we do not need government except maybe for the military, law enforcement and the courts. Good-bye FAA, FDA and EPA; let airplanes collide, medicine kill and air poison. 

The ideal for the extreme left would be ever-increasing government intervention in our lives to resolve national and global problems that individuals and corporations cannot handle by themselves. In that dream (or should I say nightmare) the government would decide what we eat and how much, what we wear (or not) and most likely what god we worship, or rather make sure we don’t.

Obesity has become an epidemic. In NYC, 5,000 people will die this year alone of medical condition cause by over eating. According to Dr. Thomas Farley, the New York City Health Commissioner, $2.8 billion a year is spent on government health programs in care for obesity-related diseases. 

It has been estimated that 1/3 of the population in the U.S. is obese. While historically obesity was a disease of the rich, it has now become a disease of the poor because of lack of proper education on healthy eating habits and because fast food is cheap. On a global perspective, today, according to Mayor Bloomberg, there are more people dying of obesity than there are people dying of hunger.

Michael Mudd, a former senior executive in the food industry writes in his March 16, 2013 New York Times OpEd entitled How to Force Ethics on the Food Industry believes that the industry should stop “enticing people to consume more and more high-margin, low-nutrition branded products.” He says that the excuse of “we give people what they want” in many ways similar to the excuses given by the tobacco industry is not credible.    

I would think that with a public health problem of that dimension, government intervention would be welcomed. We seem to all agree that the sale and consumption of drugs such as cocaine and heroin should be illegal.  Why not welcome a very minor restriction on the size of sugar-filled drinks that can be sold.  No one has proposed limiting the quantity someone can buy. The ban would merely be creating a minor obstacle to consuming an excessive amount of sugar. (It would be somehow awkward to handle two cups of a soft drink instead of one big one.)

We can also look at this issue as one of finding the right balance between freedom and responsibility. How much of our individual freedom are we willing to give up to save other people’s lives?

Patrick Henry once said “Give me liberty or give me death.” On this issue I am afraid that those who oppose government intervention on excessive sugar consumption are really saying:  “Give me liberty AND give me death.”

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