The growing ambitions of the food police.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 22 2009 11:23 AM

Then They Came for the Fresca

The growing ambitions of the food police.

(Continued from Page 1)

consumers do not bear the full costs of their consumption decisions. Because of the contribution of the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity, as well as the health consequences that are independent of weight, the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages generates excess health care costs. Medical costs for overweight and obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion—or 9.1% of U.S. health care expenditures—with half these costs paid for publicly through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. … Escalating health care costs and the rising burden of diseases related to poor diet create an urgent need for solutions, thus justifying government's right to recoup costs.

If you're trying to sink health care reform, this is a good way to do it: Show everyone how subsidized health insurance will entitle other people to regulate your eating habits. But it's worth noting that the authors base their argument on programs that already exist: Medicare and Medicaid.

I'll leave the socialism question to the rest of you. My real interest is in the authors' third basis for regulation: market failure that

results from time-inconsistent preferences (i.e., decisions that provide short-term gratification but long-term harm). This problem is exacerbated in the case of children and adolescents, who place a higher value on present satisfaction while more heavily discounting future consequences.

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Wow. This isn't socialism. It's sheer paternalism. It applies even if you cover every cent of your medical expenses. You buy and drink soda because you want the "short-term gratification." Later, you regret this purchase because of its "long-term harm." This, according to the authors, is a market failure that justifies taxation to alter your behavior, totally apart from its impact on public health costs.

This is what worries me about the crackdown on death sticks and edible crap. There's no end to its ambitions. We'd better start applying some brakes.

If you think I'm overreacting, I call your attention to this paragraph in the NEJM article:

No adverse health effects of noncaloric sweeteners have been consistently demonstrated, but there are concerns that diet beverages may increase calorie consumption by justifying consumption of other caloric foods or by promoting a preference for sweet tastes. At present, we do not propose taxing beverages with noncaloric sweeteners, but we recommend close tracking of studies to determine whether taxing might be justified in the future.

I'm sitting here looking at a can of Fresca. The nutrition label says it has no calories. The ingredients label lists only aspartame as a sweetener. If studies show that drinks like this one indirectly increase calorie consumption "by promoting a preference for sweet tastes," the food police are explicitly prepared to tax them. And the crusade won't end with soda. Anything sweet is a target.

I warn you people now. You can ban the Marlboros, tax the Cokes, and zone the Whoppers. But you'll get Plotz's Fresca when you pry it from his cold, dead hands.