I see that leading Stuff today is an article on New Zealand’s “obesity epidemic”, and how we must changes some things because we are “killing ourselves”. The policy suggestions are:
In a report published today, the association calls for drastic cures for the bulge, including taxing or minimum prices for sugary drinks, restricting food advertising aimed at children, and taking fast food out of schools.
I’ll be honest, I can see a reasonable justification for everything except the minimum price. I can see a good justification for changing policies around children, based on habit formation. This isn’t the point. The point I’m touching on involves the inappropriateness of quotes like this:
Otago University health researcher Professor Jim Mann said he supported the report’s recommendations, particularly a fizzy drink tax. Kiwis were becoming so big that they were almost blind to obesity. “Parents can’t even identify when their children are overweight or obese. Obesity is fast becoming normal.”
New Zealand’s poverty rates, particularly among children, and cheap access to fatty tasty foods were largely to blame, as was a lack of political will. “There is this obsession with the nanny state, that we shouldn’t be telling people what to do.”
A couple of points before the main game, “poverty” is too blame for the fact households can afford more calories then they would even need – ok that is a relatively ridiculous statement. Furthermore, what exactly is the problem with the normalisation of obesity among people – we need a little more than “it will shorten their life”. If anything, I have a problem with us trying to stigmatize people ALL THE TIME for things and placing a cost on them – this gets very close to bullying (in fact, I find some of the anti-obesity stuff that comes out to effectively be bullying).
But ignore that as well (I know it’s hard). There is nothing wrong with doctors giving advice and “telling people they should do” something. But there is a big problem with doctors being able to impose what they believe people should be doing on them – and the difference is constantly missing in this debate. The individual has a property right on their body – not society.
When I hear claims creeping towards saying we should force people to do things for their own good, and when I hear “externalities” justified on “lost productivity”, I hear this song:
It isn’t a particularly exciting track – and I seem to see stories that cause me to hear it every day. This is a negative externality from this sort of story, so let’s tax it
Anyway, why do I say this is rhetoric around restricting the choice of the poor again? Look carefully at the policies, blaming “poverty rates” and yet setting minimum prices, taxes, and cutting out types of food. When it comes to habit formation with children this is reasonable – but when we start treating adults like children without thinking about WHY they are making choices, we aren’t being helpful. This is a point that I tried to flesh out more in the comments here when discussing this on Sciblogs.
In the case of “poverty” and “food” the mechanism could be status good competition. But increasing prices doesn’t necessarily help this, and may just make the associated competition and psychosocial stress worse! It isn’t enough to say we have a cause, the policy needs to be predicated on the cause! What makes this hard is the fact we often can’t observe these causes – which is why we have to make our value judgments about the individual behaviour involved, when discussing the policy, VERY VERY clear. Otherwise we may tacitly assume very stupid, unfair, or ridiculous behaviour – this is a lesson economists learnt the hard way 40 years ago
Notice it isn’t most of the suggested policies I’m against – it is the way we are describing individuals, and especially the poor.
I am sure that there are a number of people who read this and say one of the following:
- You are just a free choice zealot who won’t listen to reason
- Sure whatever, but it is important to make strong claims to sell policy
- It is difficult to describe nuanced policy, so we have to explain it in simple but powerful ways to sell it
Each of these three views is based on good intentions – the best even. However, by ignoring why individuals make choices and how policy relates – whether in making policy or in discourse – these good intentions don’t imply good outcomes. I have (differing) issues with each of these three positions.
And in each case, I fear that those we hurt most are those who are most vulnerable and most excluded in the first place – the poorest among us.
Note: I want to repeat something I said earlier, so I’ll do that here “I find some of the anti-obesity stuff that comes out to effectively be bullying” – I don’t see this cost being included in policy announcements. And it also makes me very very angry – a modern society is supposed to be helping individuals become more, not bullying them until they conform to some idealized norm.