Friday, September 14, 2012

Super Sized Sodas and the Myth of Individualism

I can't believe I'm writing a second post about this, but the first one wasn't really all that good - and it was months ago. The New York City big-soda ban has officially gone into effect now. Lot's of people are upset. I don't think this is necessarily a high priority, nor do I think it's the best way to do what they're trying to do. That being said, I'd like to make a humble defense of the idea behind this ban.

The main argument against this ban is that it's too heavy-handed in telling people how much soda they can drink at one time. It is an invasion of individual freedom - and that people should be allowed to do what they want - even if it's bad for them - so long as it doesn't affect anyone else.

The problem is that everything we do affects someone else. We really aren't individuals. Maybe, if you were to hike into the wilds of Northern Canada, build a cabin from wood you'd hewn yourself, and live off the land - there might be an argument for individualism. Whilst we live in a society, we are in relationship to each other.

Health care costs are skyrocketing in this country. Whether its paid for through government programs, private insurers, charities, or straight from your pocket, we all end up paying for each other's health care. It all comes from the same place and ends up in the same place. One of the big drives now, is to figure out how to get our health care dollars from point A to point B most efficiently. We don't need to go into that here.

About 10% of our healthcare dollars are spent combating diabetes (57% of the money spent on diabetes patients goes directly to treating the disease) - this number is rising rapidly. Most health insurance plans do not cover preventative measures, only emergency and management procedures - which means a lot of poor people (who disproportionately have diabetes) are not getting all the preventative interventions possible - and costing all of us money in the long run.

One of the main causes of diabetes is too much sugar in the diet - hence a ban on large sodas in New York. I personally think ending the subsidies that make corn syrup so artificially cheap - and doing what's necessary to make healthy foods competitively priced is a better route.

You may say, "People who want more can get more, they just have to fill their cup more often or buy multiple cups or stop more often." That's true. No one is actually impinging on their freedom to drink as much terrible soda as they want - we're just making it a little more difficult. If there's one thing we know about ourselves as Americans, it's that we're lazy. If we have to work hard for soda, we might find it less worth it (although our addiction to the caffeine will likely push us to make the extra effort).

Ultimately this is not about affecting the consumption enough to save money on the ban alone. You can walk out of a New York McDonalds and into the 7-11 next door and buy a three liter bottle of soda. What this is is the beginning of a stigma.

At one point in this country it was odd if you didn't use a tobacco product on a regular basis. Doctor's prescribed them for people's health. All of our role models - newsmen, politicians, actors, athletes - they all smoked. When I was a kid, you could put a few coins in a vending machine, pull a lever and get cigarettes in every restaurant.

Now, there's a strict age limit and pretty severe penalties for adults to provide tobacco to minors. We've put billions of dollars into a stigmatization campaign that has driven tobacco users to the periphery of society, like those who frequent strip clubs or adult book stores. You can't even smoke inside at all in many states. We're working to put pictures of diseased lungs and tracheotomies on cigarette packaging (they already have in Europe).

Effectively and efficiently, our society decided that while tobacco should be accessible in whatever quantities an adult desires, it shouldn't be easy or cheap or fun to do so. We're encouraging people to cut down, cut back, cut out tobacco in an effort to save lives and to save money. Lung cancer and emphysema treatments aren't cheap.

Sugar is pretty ubiquitous and certainly not everyone is an addict, although some are. Likely the same could be said for cigarettes in the 1940's and 50's. We laugh at the Mormons for avoiding caffeine, much the same way my own denomination was laughed at for avoiding tobacco. Things change.

There's nothing wrong with sugar. I love it. I have a difficult time resisting a bag of gummy worms when I pass them in the grocery store. We buy too much ice cream. You know what - none of that is good for me and I'd certainly buy less of it if it cost more money.

Maybe the individual isn't better off having small sodas, paying extra, or having to go up for more refills. I'll grant that it's true. But I do think we can argue society is better for it - or things like it.

As much as we dislike government (and I am all for as small a government as necessary) one thing it's incredibly good at is making us do things we know are good for us, but are tough to follow through on. Keeping ourselves healthy might have to be one we add to list - along with providing for our security, infrastructure, elderly and poor.

I'm ok if you're against the ban (heck, I already said I don't think it' the best way to get the desired result). I'm ok if you're offended by the idea. I'd just like you to admit that, for some people, it makes sense. There is a logic to it - even if you don't think the costs are worth the benefits.

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