With Freedom Comes Responsibility June 5th, 2012
They were the words I heard along with nearly every major rite of passage. When I got my first bike. When I was first dropped off at the mall without an adult. When I got a curfew. When I got a car. You name it and I heard some version of, “With freedom comes responsibility.”
You probably heard it too. And if you are a parent whose child has been granted a longer leash at some point then you’ve likely said it yourself. It is a parent’s way of reminding a child that while he has earned the right to wander farther from the nest, in some literal or metaphorical capacity, he must hold up his end of the deal. He must not squander that freedom. He must enjoy and use it wisely. And the most important implication, of course, is that he must use good judgment or the freedom will be taken away.
Perhaps someone should have told the American public the same thing when we were given the freedom to buy fountain sodas in 44 ounce portions.
I’m sure you’ve caught wind of the new legislation proposed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The basic premise is that sugary drinks (sodas are the primary target here) could not be sold in portions larger than 16 ounces.* Beware, Big Gulp – this means you. Not surprisingly, consumers and beverage industry insiders alike are, well, freaking out.
There are so many ways to look at a ban like this. Some people will believe (as I intimated at the start of this post) that as a society we have not managed our dietary freedoms responsibly and that the loss of such freedoms is a logical and appropriate consequence. Other people will believe that our country was founded on a basic premise of freedom and that legislating something as seemingly benign as soda consumption strikes at the very heart of who we are as a nation.
While I have my own opinions, I can understand both perspectives.
This Huffington Post editorial makes some fair points against the ban. Author Adam Geller addresses the “slippery slope” argument by commenting that,
If government is within its right to restrict behavior to protect health, then why wouldn’t a mayor or other official ban risky sexual conduct or dangerous sports like skydiving? What’s to stop a mayor from requiring people to wear a certain type of sunscreen or limit the amount of time they can spend on the beach, to protect them from skin cancer?
My response to him? Sky diving accidents are not costing our country $174 billion dollars per year. Even skin cancer doesn’t hit that tally. And it’s that dollar figure that causes me to lean into Mr. Bloomberg’s territory.
Let’s consider the tobacco industry as an analogy. If you think about tobacco legislation, things got really serious at two key moments. One was when we discovered that the tobacco companies knew their products were addictive and took steps to increase their addictiveness. The other was when it was proven that the damage done by smoking was not limited to the smokers themselves, but also to those around them. Once we knew with certainty that second-hand smoke was having an adverse effect on non-smokers we began taking things much more seriously.
Now, if I alone am obese, my obesity doesn’t affect your health. It doesn’t give you Type 2 diabetes or hypertension. It doesn’t raise your prescription costs or require you to have a foot amputated. The immediate adverse effects of my own obesity lie with me alone (and perhaps loved ones in my life who must also deal with it). But if 63% of Americans are overweight or obese, that does ultimately affect you. When two thirds of Americans are overweight it affects patient volumes and wait times in emergency rooms. It raises insurance premiums across the board. It creates massive amounts of chronic disease that will burden our healthcare system for generations.
So while my obesity may not affect your health, it absolutely affects your life. And this is what brings us to the conundrum of the soda ban. That is, how much are we willing to allow our government to intervene in this issue?
In this vein, an LA Times editorial comments,
Almost everything government does restricts the freedom of the governed in some way. People tend to accept these limits without complaint when there’s a clear connection to public safety and civil order, or a clear benefit from the spending that’s proportionate to the cost. … The support weakens when the connection to public safety isn’t so clear or the benefits are more abstract. … [T]he public accepts some governmental intrusion into what people eat and drink. There is an assortment of restrictions on alcoholic beverages, including a minimum drinking age, drunk-driving laws and regulations governing when and where liquor may be advertised. There are food safety standards and nutritional mandates on school lunch programs. … But telling the average person that he has to eat X or cannot eat Y goes a step further. It intrudes on personal decisions that consumers make with their own dollars that affect just their own bodies.”
Ahhh, yes. But as we’ve already discussed, the effect eventually reaches much further than the individual’s own body. So what do we do next? Mr. Bloomberg, being a politician, has chosen to pursue the legislative route. (When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) However, marketing experts believe that such restrictions will cause people to resist their intent, potentially causing them to backfire altogether.**
The next problem, then, is figuring out how to make an issue of this issue without hurting the feelings of more than half the country. There is such stigma attached to obesity. It brings with it a whole cargo ship’s worth of baggage including feelings of insecurity, weakness, inadequacy, failure, judgment, and so on. These are valid sensitivities, and ones that should be handled with kid gloves. That doesn’t mean, though, that they shouldn’t be handled at all. Ignoring this problem won’t make it go away.
The most important point in this entire issue, though, is to acknowledge that Mr. Bloomberg isn’t wrong in his assessment of the problem. American rates of obesity (and all its related conditions) must be lowered. I’m not the right person to say whether or not his legislative tack is the right one. But his strategy – reducing consumption of countless empty calories – certainly is.
*The ban would not apply to juices, diet sodas, alcoholic drinks, dairy drinks such as milk shakes, or sodas sold in grocery stores.
**From my vantage point, I wonder what a well-executed public service campaign would do. (When you are a marketing professional, everything looks like a campaign opportunity…) In the spirit of the “This is your brain on drugs” commercials from the 1980s, I can imagine a series of ads that would highlight the horrors of obesity and all of its medical side effects that might be quite compelling. They would cast a pall on excessive consumption while still leaving the ultimate decision in the hands of the consumer. But I don’t know if they would ultimately be effective or not. It’s an idea, I suppose.