Paternalism and Obesity: Rethinking Bloomberg’s Soda Ban

Many observers have taken Michael Bloomberg to task for his (so far) ill-fated big soda ban in New York City. But two recently have taken a step back to consider the pros and cons of consumer paternalism and even offer some thoughts on how someone with Bloomberg’s expertise and influence might make a difference in the fight against obesity.

Binoy Campmark in Counterpunch suggests that without a collective conscience, “there can be no workable paternalism.” He believes Bloomberg had science on his side when he formulated the soda restrictions (though plenty of controversy remains among obesity experts), but argues that private decisions should not be regulated unless they harm others. He admits that health decisions “do not happen in a vacuum” and that one person’s obesity costs the public money. And thus it is in the public’s interest to be concerned. Rather than more regulation, Campmark argues for more information, so that consumers can make better decisions about what they eat and drink.

Hark Cardello, in Forbes, also bemoans New York’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach with the big soda ban. He scolds Bloomberg for failing to see that progress will be impossible until the businesses involved in producing and marketing food and drinks see that they have an interest bringing change. He points to the example of the auto industry, which fought off pressure from activists like Ralph Nader to make safer cars until it became clear that consumers were willing to pay more for safer cars.

The surest way to get food and soda companies on board in the fight against obesity, according to Cardello, is for Bloomberg to apply his expertise in making money and running businesses. He should find places where his activism and business profits overlap.

For example, Cardello argues that data from his own organization shows companies that offer lower-calorie and healthier food sell more. He also encourages activists like Bloomberg to get businesses on board with the objective (reducing obesity) then leave it to them to identify tactics that will solve the problem. (Of course, experience has shown all too often that this doesn’t work.) Finally, Cardello suggests tracking and incenting progress with something similar to a J.D. Powers Award for companies that drive down calories per sales dollar in their P&L.

One thing is clear. We will see a continuing mix of adversarial, collaborative, regulatory, and consumer-driven approaches  as we grope for something that actually works.

Click here to read more in Counterpunch piece and here to read more in Forbes.

Guard at Company Town in Jefferson County, Alabama; Farm Security Administration photograph by Artuhur Rothstein from the National Archives / Wikimedia

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