Several years ago, the Board of Health in New York City banned the use of artificial trans fats in restaurants. Last week they passed another ban, this time banning sodas larger than 16 ounces in restaurants and other venues, with the exception of grocery stores. The bans in New York have been subject to criticism by many, including those in the restaurant business. The Board of Health passed these bans for public health reasons. Obesity is a growing epidemic in the United States and is leading to increases in heart problems, diabetes, and cancer.
The goals of the Board of Health are to encourage healthy eating and reduce obesity, both of which are very important, but I am not sure that bans are the best approach. Bans on what individuals can put in their body seem to infringe on our freedoms. The New York City bans on trans fats and large sodas have been carefully crafted so that they impact what is available at restaurants but do not limit the choices that people can make at the grocery store, which does make it feel less like “Big Brother” is getting involved in people’s personal decision-making. However, health education may be a more effective and less controversial way to encourage healthy behaviors. Banning trans fats in restaurants prevents people from consuming them when out, but it does not teach them why they should avoid trans fats. Banning large sodas may prevent people from drinking as much (or may just encourage them to request more refills), but it does not teach them why soda is so bad for us. Many people have a frightening lack of knowledge when it comes to nutrition. If knowledge is power, then isn’t education a better approach? Education would involve some upfront costs but those costs would be offset by reduced future medical expenditures.