Jun 13, 2014

"I'd Eat Healthy If It Were Affordable": Government Policy Regarding Healthy Living by James Thumb

“What You Eat is Your Business” is an article written by Radley Balko and published by the Cato Institute in May 2004. Balko argues that government intervention in the food industry is not the correct way to go about improving the diet of citizens. He suggests that the government should put the financial responsibility of health on the individual. Its important to note that Cato states that it is a "public policy research organization — a think tank – dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace." So what does Balko suggest the government do and how do I feel about these ideas?

Balko suggests some very sensible policy changes to create incentives to induce individuals to make better health choices; however, he is too polemical in his condemnation of the current government policy. It is true that more responsibility should be placed on the individual. This makes sense from an economic incentive point of view. Without the private financial incentive to lead a healthy life style individuals are more likely to become obese. With a private incentive, due to higher health insurance premiums, individuals will theoretically make better health choices. Yet, Balko appears to be against such government interventions such as the “fat tax” on high-calorie foods that some politicians are calling for. This tax would represent that private financial incentive to make better health choices. Balko, in his fear of government intervention, is making a grave mistake. Despite what Balko says, Government should attempt to go, in the words of Balko, “between you and your waistline”. Government should introduce policy to the point that the benefits outweigh the costs. The costs of introducing new bicycle trails and sidewalks may very well be less than the money saved on health costs; as citizens are hopefully getting more exercise. Its not an issue of invasion of one's choices but rather a proactive attempt to save on expenses. Very few people would suggest that traffic lights, which are an invasion of one's choices, are a poor policy decision because they reduce the number of accidents and eventually turn to a positive financial decision. Reducing obesity not only reduces the social costs related to health problems but also increases everyone's enjoyment of life. Balko specifically criticizes policy that requires the removal of junk food from school vending machines. I went to a highschool that had no junk food in the vending machines, and I really don't think any of the students missed it - in fact, it was a benefit to have fruit available at reasonable prices.

Balko should analyze the current trends in the health movement to discover what is working. For example, it is extremely important to reduce the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Children are unable to make rational decisions as an adult should be expected to do. He does suggest, to my pleasure, that "government ought to be working to foster a sense of responsibility in and ownership of our own health and well-being". I just don't see the issue in such dichotomous terms. I think that public school education should teach students about proper health and nutrition (parents have a responsibility as well), but government should also give incentives to eat healthy; just as they tax cigarettes and liquor.

A major issue that Balko brings up is the control of health insurance. He complains, “We’re becoming less responsible for our own health, and more responsible for everyone else’s.” The government has prevented health insurance from charging higher premiums to obese clients. As obese people are more prone to needing health insurance this cost is then reflected in higher premiums for all members, including healthy clients that are less likely to be at risk for certain common illnesses related to obesity. I do not know enough about private health insurance companies in the USA to comment on this issue but it does make sense, as Balko suggests, to "reward healthy lifestyles, and penalize poor ones".

The fear of government interference in the free market is a major theme of Balko’s paper. He fears that the government will take too much control of what food is available to the general public. Balko believes that government should not intervene in issues of obesity; in fact Balko states that, “the best way to alleviate the obesity ‘public health’ crisis is to remove obesity from the realm of public health". Obesity occurs for numerous reasons outside of free choice of diet and exercise. There could be numerous other reasons for obesity; in which some cases it may be wrong to blame the individual. It may be prudent to blame the macro-culture of the country, or, in other cases, over-eating can be viewed as a mental illness. I mentioned earlier that spending money on new bicycle trails in the city could help reduce obesity. It may not be correct to fully blame policy, but a city that does not offer places for activities will have a higher obesity rate.

Balko raises a few concerns that are relevant when making normative health policy statements. He should, however, allow the possibility that government policy, if used correctly, can bring about situations that have a net benefit on society. Government has the right to spend money wisely to save money in the long run.

James Thumb
Socializing your diet from Vernon, BC
March 2014

Link to the article: http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/what-you-eat-is-business

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