Boston, famous for its beans and tea party, is once again in the news. Mayor Tom Menino has signed an executive order that forbids the sale, promotion and advertising of sugary drinks on government property. The city has six months to comply.
The main justification for this order is that sugary drinks contribute to obesity and obesity is a major health threat in terms of impairing the health of individuals and increasing the cost of medical care. As such, the mayor is acting to protect citizens from the dual harms of obesity: ill health and greater costs.
It is, of course, important to note that the ban is not a general ban. People can still buy all the sugary drinks they desire and advertising can continue urging people to swill until they achieve and awesomely bloated state. They simply cannot do these things on government property. As such, the impact of this order will probably be a bit limited.
While there are clearly grounds for concern that the ban was the result of an executive order rather than being put to a vote, it can be argued that this ban is justified.
First, there is the harm argument. The main function of government is to protect citizens from harm and this can reasonable taken to include things that have an impact on the physical health of the citizen. So, just as the government can ban dangerous substances from food, it can also legitimately ban sugary drinks on the grounds that they harm the health of citizens.
Of course, the ban is not complete-it just, as noted above, applies to government property. As such, the impact on health will probably be fairly minimal.
Second, there is the economic argument. Cutting government spending is supposed to be the will of the people these days and one way to reduce this spending is to reduce government spending on health care. Obese people are considerably more expensive to care for than people who are not obese. Sugary drinks are packed with empty calories and contribute to obesity. Hence, banning them would presumably help reduce obesity and hence medical costs-most relevantly those taken care of by Medicare and Medicaid.
However, the limited scope of the ban means that the impact on medical costs will probably be fairly minimal (even when the scope is limited to Boston).
Third, there is the symbolic argument. While the ban will probably have a fairly minor impact on health and savings, it does make a statement and is attracting attention. The city is also engaged in an education program (well, some signs) that are aimed at encouraging people to make better choices about beverages. This might have some impact on peoples’ behavior and lead them to consume fewer sugary beverages.
There are, obviously enough, some reasonable arguments against the ban.
The first is that the ban, as argued above, will probably have little or no meaningful impact. As such, there seems little compelling reason to impose such a ban.
The second, and most important, is that such a ban would seem to infringe on freedom of choice. While sugary drinks are a very poor choice in terms of health, there does not appear to be adequate grounds for such a ban, even one limited to government property. Obviously, such drinks are not (yet) illegal to consume and imposing such a ban seems to lack an adequate foundation.
As a general rule, the legitimate ground on which the state can restrict freedom of choice is to prevent harms from being inflicted on others. What would thus have to be shown is that the harm of the drinks outweighs the harm done by placing such restrictions.While it has been claimed that the drinks can make people fat, that is true of any food. True, sugary drinks do provide a great deal of empty calories. However, they do not seem to have special properties that make them especially dangerous and hence fit for a special ban. Their consumption also does not harm others around the consumer (unlike tobacco smoke). Also, anything that has calories can, by its very nature, make people fat. Banning all food and drink that provide calories from government property would, of course, be absurd.
My view is that while people should avoid sugary drinks, this is not a choice that should be made by the state. I do agree that the state should educate people about matters of health and that healthier alternatives should be available and encouraged. But, people have a fundamental right to make poor choices, be it in what sort of beverage they drink or what candidate they vote for.