Discussion

Dear Government, Don’t Count Our Calories

June 8, 2012, 10:30 AM HST
* Updated June 8, 10:33 AM
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In a recent opinion piece for Big Island Now, it was suggested that a soda tax was the best way to curb a growing obesity epidemic in Hawaii.

The idea proved quite unpopular.

Although there was limited support, most of the comments can be neatly summed up by a Big Island Now reader, who noted “Freedom means…we make our own decisions, without some nanny from the government counting my calories”.

Business owners have been vocal critics, feeling that singling out soft drinks would punish manufacturers for creating something society wants, while handing money over to politicians eager to dole out cash to interest groups.

As one entrepreneur said, “Taxing a product for being too popular is a dim-witted way of crafting society to your own granola-ridden ideal. If sodas were a serious threat to health, they’d be banned altogether.”

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He may have had a point.

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New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced he would be pushing a measure to ban large soft drinks. The three-term politician is under fire for what critics call a classic case of overreach.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Image from US Department of State.

Although government should play a role in public health, forcing every soda to cap off at 16 ounces makes little sense when half the population seems to be chugging jumbo “Mocha Cafecinnos” with whipped cream and drizzles every morning.

Once you start banning specific behaviors outright, where do you draw the line? Should a Good Samaritan perform a flying leap-tackle to prevent a father from handing his kid a fat slice of birthday cake? Should milkshakes only be consumed while on a treadmill?

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Libertarians are often wary of politicians tip-toeing into their freedoms, fearing that after policy makers in one city test the waters with regulations, others will want to jump in. Plastic bag laws are a good example of that, with a 2008 New York recycling mandate fueling a trend that culminated in plastic checkout bags being banned almost everywhere in Hawaii.

For conservatives, talk of bans and taxes causes society to miss an opportunity to teach personal responsibility. They feel that wanting your friends and neighbors to be healthy is noble, but making lifestyle choices for them is simply “un-American.”

But somewhere between laissez-faire capitalism and large cup lock-downs, a middle ground does exist. And it involves the free market.

It may be time to let health insurers price their premiums based on a person’s weight and physical condition. As it is, many of us get pooled into the same policy rates, fit or fat. Good health isn’t something we are entitled to. It’s something we must work toward, and those of us willing to burn a few calories should benefit from a hard-earned discount. Sliding scales could be used to adjust for age and genetic disorders.

This would let each of us decide what we put in our bodies, and how we use them. If a man drinks three colas a day but keeps a healthy body-weight, then good for him. If a woman wants to be big and beautiful, and is willing to pay for it, then who cares? Government would be able to step aside, and allow the private insurance system to give people choices.

While New York’s mayor embarks on a Batman-like crusade against Big Gulps, Hawaii should focus on creating a marketplace for good health. If burning calories means saving some cash, we just might outrun the need for a nanny-state.

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