Friday, June 3, 2016

What Happens When We Don't Take Care of Ourselves

We all know what happens when we don’t take care of ourselves, when we act irresponsibly.  Someone else steps in and tries to force us to change behavior.  There are a number of ways to do this.  We would like to tell these busybodies to mind their own business; but as I pointed out earlier, when we are all forced into the same big insurance pool, how well you take care of yourself becomes everyone else’s business.

The least intrusive method that they try to modify our behavior is through labeling.  The FDA has recently passed a requirement that labels on grocery items stress the amount of added sugar in the product.  “Labels will have grams of added sugar and percent of daily value.”  They will also include calories and serving size, all in larger, easier-to-read print.  Total sugar has always been listed, but they assume the larger, bolder font and more specific description will make the problem more noticeable, causing people to maybe think twice before buying something less healthy.  The standard example always seems to be Coca Cola.

And speaking of Coke – the new mayor of Philadelphia wants to impose a special tax on non-diet soda and other sugary drinks.  The new tax is expected to “generate more than $400 million over the next five years” to help fund a plan for universal pre-K and community schools among other benefits.  Using a good cause will bring good will toward paying the tax, right?  This is a little more intrusive than labeling, but the new beverage tax will not only double the cost of soft drinks and juices, it will have some interesting, unintended  side effects.  Those who are better off financially can afford to drive outside the city limits to buy their cola.  The ones who will be hurt most are the city grocery stores, who lose business as the special tax drives grocery shopping out of the city for some, and the poorer folks whose options are more limited, ironically the same people who are the target of the universal pre-K programs.  When you consider human behavior, the $400 million looks like a pipe dream.

Another way to influence our behavior is to punish the makers of products that are not healthy.  They already tax and restrict the use of tobacco, but why not also encourage citizens to act like victims and sue companies on the basis that we didn’t know better or were tricked into it.  Take the recent case of Hall of Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn.  He died at the age of 54 from salivary-gland cancer linked to many years of using smokeless tobacco. “Now, his family is suing the tobacco company they say manipulated him into addiction.”  They accuse the company of negligence, fraud and product liability, saying that Gwynn was the victim of a scheme to get him hooked into a lifelong habit, while the company all along understood the danger.  Yes, they surely did know the danger.  But Gwynn was in college in the 1980s, and who would believe that a college student at that time did not understand that tobacco was both habit-forming and a cause of cancer?  Are they arguing that he was stupid or living under a rock?  No, they only insist that the company was selling something they knew was dangerous - the same argument some want to now use against gun makers.  What’s next, mountain climbing equipment and parachutes?

When we act irresponsibly and the government wants to change our behavior (for our own good), there are more subtle ways to do it than just passing laws to ban the activity or product.  They can print bigger labels - in the UK they've even proposed printing on the labels the amount of exercise required to burn off the calories and to ban ads for junk food on both television programs and websites with content directed at children.  They also may impose higher taxes or encourage lawsuits (by the way the process is structured).  There is no end to the ways our freedom to choose or to act as we wish is restricted when someone else thinks we are acting irresponsibly.

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