nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
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Friday, April 2, 2010

A Reflection On Governmental Regulation Of Diet

From the Journal of the AMA: "In a free market economy, it is the government’s responsibility to establish regulations that align private profit with the public interest."

Those of you who follow my posts know that I have written about laws requiring calorie labeling in restaurants, and about ordinances banning fast-food restaurants. In both cases, there is evidence that the laws are ineffective in combating obesity.

The new health care law now makes it mandatory nationwide for restaurant chains to post calories.

Following up on the question of legislating against obesity, I found multiple articles regarding taxes on sodas and sugar-containing drinks, the bizarre suggestion to fine restaurants that use salt in their cooking, attempts to keep certain foods away from school children, and the like.

But the quotation above struck me as going to the heart of the matter. Does the government have the authority and obligation to legislate in the free market to force companies to operate only in the public interest?

Clearly, companies cannot do harmful things, and the government is obligated to protect public safety (toxic wastes, etc). But how far does this go?

Obesity is a public health measure. As a country we pay more for the medical care of those who are at risk from obesity-related disease. Can the government make the case that if I'm overweight, it is in the public interest that I not be able to buy a Double Whopper?

The other side of the coin is my individual liberty: the right to live my life as I see fit, not as a benevolent government would think best for me.

At some point, the competing virtues of the public interest and individual liberty will collide.

What criteria do we use to decide on the proper balance?

I'm already feeling the conflict: if I want to eat healthy, I stay home. I dine out in order to "escape" from sensible eating.


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