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Putting the state on the plate has significant benefits

There are at least three good reasons for the government to act to help its citizens make better food choices.

Some consider New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s supersized-soda ban an excessive government intrusion, but government has a good reason to want citizens to make better food choices.
REUTERS/Andrew Burton

Recently, in response to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s supersized-soda ban, first lady Michelle Obama’s concern about childhood obesity, and newly mandated restaurant nutritional information, there is considerable blowback about government intrusion into our eating habits. A seemingly common-sense response. However, despite government-mandated calorie information it has been reported that: “… only 28 percent said the information influenced their ordering … and those four states with soda-specific sin taxes … rank among the most obese in the nation.”

Well, using these figures, so much for depending on individuals to make wise food choices, even with government prodding. Clearly, more effort is needed by both the private and public sectors. Additionally, there are at least three good reasons for the government to mandate or provide nutritional information, and even “push” consumers into better food choices.

First, all nations throughout history have pressed for a more healthy, fit and energetic citizenry. Going back to the early Olympics, it was never about city-states competing, it was about individuals who were exemplary in their fitness and athleticism. Indeed, during historical periods of war and strife, it was the nations with people who were most fit that generally prevailed, and government involvement was significant.

So government concern about health and fitness matters is not only desirable, but in a sense necessary if America is to remain strong and healthy. And despite objections to government health actions, America is doing a poor job – so poor that our ranking on health-related issues is a disgrace.  And likely would be even worse without some government prodding.

U.S. ranks 37th in health

In the last survey the World Health Organization (WHO) did on national health rankings, the United States ranked 37th, just behind Costa Rica. Again, in life expectancy, we ranked 24th, just ahead of Cyprus. However, there was one category in which we were No. 1: health-care costs per capita. 

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So some government “concern” for raising the health standards in our country is well warranted. Lack of solid preventive health care is costing our country – and taxpayers – a bundle. Mitigating that cost would have a rich return.

As previously noted, some blowback was due to the mandate by Bloomberg to ban supersized sodas in an effort to combat obesity. The fact is, according to a survey of the National Council of State Legislatures, obesity is a major cause of our higher health-care cost. Indeed, in 2009, it estimated in “State-Level Estimated Annual Obesity-Attributable Expenditures, by State” that the added cost in New York State is over $11 billion.

Why the high cost associated with obesity? Overweight folks suffer more hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and other ailments at a far greater rate than the general population. But New York is not alone (and far from the worst state) when it comes to the issue of obesity in America. Almost all states have an obese population of over 25 percent; with some has high as one third of all adults significantly overweight.

The national organization Prevent Obesity has recently reported that “Minnesota’s obesity rates could soar to 54.7 percent by 2030”… and, “adult obesity rates in 2030 could surpass 60 percent in 13 states, and at least 44 percent in every state.”

Far from a dramatic intrusion

Moreover, government involvement in our food chain is neither new nor undesirable. True, placing added rules or information at the retail and restaurant level is more recent, but it is far from a dramatic intrusion into what foods we choose to eat or drink. The government has – rightfully and thankfully – protected us for decades against tainted, contaminated or significantly hazardous food products. Additionally, the current concern regarding obesity and poor food choices should be welcomed. Especially by parents, because the overweight rate among children is the fastest growing segment of obesity. In 1963 about 4 percent of children from the ages of 6-11 were overweight; today almost 20 percent are.

So, in answering the question: “Do we really need government either suggesting or mandating how much soda we can drink; how much saturated fat is damaging; how much salt goes into a can of soup?” Well, maybe we do. Until or unless we can find some effective ways to keep our country from sliding in world health rankings, to be more competitive in life expectancy, to stop the growing trend toward a nation of obesity, to drive down our outrageously high health costs, and to make us a more fit nation – then I personally appreciate the state on my plate.

Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.

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