Freedom vs. Responsibility

“We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do anything. All we’re trying to do is remind you that this is something that… is detrimental to your health and to do something about this national epidemic.”

That’s New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg defending his proposal to ban sugary sodas in containers larger than 16 oz. from restaurants, concession stands and movie theaters in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.

The blow back on New York’s largely popular mayor since making his proposal public has been enormous. NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewed Bloomberg and pointed to an online poll conducted the night before asking viewers, “Do you think a ban on big sizes of sugary drinks will curb obesity?” 83 percent, Lauer points out, said ‘No.’

Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert had a field day. “No more giant sodas? Come on! This is America, the land of plenty. We haven’t even achieved type-3 diabetes yet!”

Conservative George Will said, “In one sentence [Bloomberg’s] got the essence of contemporary liberalism. That is something preposterous and something sinister.” “ ‘We’re not taking away anyone’s right to do things,’ Will said, quoting Bloomberg.’ We’re simply forcing you to understand.’ … what Bloomberg is saying, the government helps with your healthcare, the government’s implicated in your heath, therefore we own you.”

Here’s Bloomberg’s full rebuttal to Mitchell with the line Will pulled out (in italics) to give you a little context.

“The idea here is you tend to eat all of the food in the container in front of you. If it’s a bigger container, you’ll eat more. If somebody put a smaller glass or plate or bowl in front of you, you would eat less.

“And at this point, there’s an epidemic in this country of people being overweight, bordering on obesity. The percentage of the population that is obese is skyrocketing. In New York City alone, the number of deaths from smoking has declined so much and the number of deaths from obesity has gone up so much those two are about to cross. We’re going to have more deaths from obesity than smoking.

“We’ve got to do something. Everybody is wringing their hands saying we’ve got to do something. Well, here is a concrete thing. You can still buy large bottles in stores. But in a restaurant, 16 ounces is the maximum that they would be able to serve in one cup. If you want to order two cups of the same time, that’s fine. It’s your choice. We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do things. We’re simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup.”

In Monday’s commentary I asked: “Is it fair to propose such a ban? What about the public good – doesn’t the mayor have a duty to advance the well-being of its citizens? But is it the mayor’s responsibility to define what is good and bad for us?

I’ve gone back and forth on the issue, and on the surface, the mayor’s proposal does seem intrusive and unfair.

Bloomberg was the first mayor to ban smoking in public places. His example led to similar bans in major cities around the country. However, his point was to reduce the effects of second-hand smoke on those individuals who could be harmed by the exposure. However, there’s no such second-hand affect with a 32 oz. Big Gulp. In that sense, Bloomberg would appear to be overreaching.

But let’s take a look at the science.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period. In 2008, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.”

Regarding adults, the CDC points out: “Over the past decade, obesity has become recognized as a national health threat and a major public health challenge. In 2007–2008, based on measured weights and heights, approximately 72.5 million adults in the United States were obese (CDC, unpublished data, 2010).

“From 1987 to 2001, diseases associated with obesity accounted for 27% of the increases in U.S. medical costs. For 2006, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at as much as $147 billion (2008 dollars); among all payers, obese persons had estimated medical costs that were $1,429 higher than persons of normal weight. In 2001, the Surgeon General called for strong public health action to prevent and decrease overweight and obesity.”

I live in a city where they have recently redesigned some stretches of streets. Instead of enjoying a nice, smooth drive, I now have to drive along streets where a “traffic calmer” – a visible narrowing of the street at an intersection – causes me to slow down below the speed limit. I also have to tolerate speed bumps in some areas where there’s been a history of increased speeding. In streets around the local university, the bumps cause me to really slow down or pay a heavy price on the front end of my car.

Both are irritating, but they have not affected my freedom to drive where I please. They just cause me to slow down and pay closer attention. Not a bad thing.

Bloomberg points out that he’s not banning ALL sugary sodas. He’s banning those drinks in containers larger than 16 oz. – a speed bump.

According to the Department of Transportation, 3,092 people were killed on the roads due to distracted driving. Currently, 32 states as well as the District of Columbia ban the use of cell phones while driving. The states are not taking away my freedom to talk on a cell phone, just not talk on them while I’m driving.

“It’s not the only answer,” Bloomberg said talking about the ban. “It’s not the only cause of people being overweight. But we’ve got to do something. Sitting around and doing nothing and watching our kids get fatter and fatter, then they are going to be overweight as adults if they’re overweight as kids. That’s just not something we should do as a society.

“We have a responsibility to tell you, and then you have the responsibility to take care of yourself and be in charge of your own destiny. That’s not something government can or should do for you.”

Responsible individuals seek to lead by example. Mayor Bloomberg has done so in the past. His new proposal is no more inconvenient than a speed bump. Count me in, Mr. Mayor as soon as I finish… my last… Big… Gulp.

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