The Carrot and the Stick

In yesterday’s blog, I suggested that–despite efforts to wage class warfare over the demise of the Twinkie–market forces were the real culprit. That prompted my cousin the cardiologist, whom I’ve quoted here before, to consider the proper role of government in promoting healthy eating. As he noted,

Studies showing that the ready availability of foods high in sugar, fat, sodium, and calories increase average body weight. Adults living closer to fast food restaurants consume such food more frequently than those who don’t and, consequently, are heavier. This is especially important for children; schools that serve more unhealthy foods or provide vending machines with unhealthy foods tend to be heavier than children whose schools do not permit such practices. Similarly adolescents who attend schools near fast food restaurants are more likely to be obese.

    Compounding these problems are other economic forces surrounding foods: The cost per calorie of healthy foods exceeds those of poor nutrient foods. In the past 30 ears, this cost disparity has increased; between 1985 and 2000, the prices of healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, fish, and dairy products increased at more than twice the rate of prices of sugar and sweets, fats and oils, and carbonated beverages.

    Finally, we must consider portion sizes as another contributor to obesity. For children alone, between 1977 and 2006 the average portions of soft drinks, pizza, and Mexican foods increased by 34, 140, and 139 calories, respectively,. Sodas, sold originally in 6.5 oz. bottles, are now typically sold in 20 ounce containers. Studies have shown in general that increased portion sizes lead to rises in calorie intake: as a result, US adults now consume over 500 calories per day in 2006 compared to that in 1977. This trend has been further exacerbated by our increased eating away from home, for in 2008, Americans spent 49% of their food budget on food away from home compared with 33% in 1970. On average, each meal eaten outside the home increases that day’s consumption by about 134 calories, while, at the same time shifts the content toward less nutritious ingredients such as saturated fat and added sugar.

In New York, as we all know, Mayor Bloomberg led the fight to ban the sale of large sodas. I agree with my cousin that no matter how well-intentioned, efforts to have government “decree” healthy portion sizes are not the answer. Nor is the answer some “nanny state” that requires us to eat our vegetables or limit meals eaten out.

Does government even have a role in our personal eating habits? It’s hard not to sympathize with a libertarian response–“What business does the state have telling me what to eat, after all? Next thing you know, the local constable will come knocking on my door to see whether I’ve eaten my broccoli!”

Even those of us with a libertarian bent must concede that–at the very least–consumers need information upon which to make our choices. We need to know what’s in the “food” we are eating (note quotes around food); much of it has been so processed and adulterated, there’s no way to know what it contains. We depend upon government-required labels to tell us just how nutritious (or not) it is.

Can government go farther? Here’s where the battle lines get drawn. Public health officials justify added interventions by pointing to the economic consequences of the obesity epidemic, and the medical consequences of poor eating habits. Bans on large soft drinks or other sugary treats will be a hard sell, though, in a country where individual choice is prized.

From my perspective, raising tax rates on such drinks makes more sense. Since 2009, 19 states and eight cities have proposed such taxes on these drinks, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The advantage of raising such taxes can be taken from that of tobacco products. Cigarettes are clearly the cause of numerous diseases, costly in both human suffering as well as expenses to society at large. Thus heavy taxes provide the dual advantage of discouraging their consumption as well as raising taxes that can aid in the care of these afflicted individuals. In the case of sugary drinks (and other similar products), taxing these products, plus providing healthier alternatives such as fruit juices in public places would move us in the right direction. A penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugary drinks would effectively raise the shelf price of these drinks by about 20%. According to a number of studies, this would result in a 14 to 20% reduction in the consumption of the taxed beverages.

Makes sense to me.


  1. Cigarettes are an endangered species thanks to government action and strong public backing. As a former smoker, I do believe it is overboard to enact laws which control public serving businesses owned by private citizens even if it is healthier. Too bad the government doesn’t take such strong action regarding drunk drivers. The government may have good intentions in their attempts to push people to think first and make healthy decisons regarding food and drink but common sense cannot be legislated. The public will continue going for what tastes best, feels good and gives them a feeling of satisfaction as personal indulgence rules – till they look into a mirror and wonder what happened. School meals should be healthy in content but I have seen news items showing overweight teachers trying to explain why their students should eat healty foods. Why would students pay attention to an obvious, “Do as I say, not as I do.” lesson? Again, common sense cannot be legislated and we view the results of this waddling around everywhere we go and are aware of the cost to all of us indirectly supporting their eating habits.

  2. Thanks Prof. I am not so sure this is an area where there is too much our Federal government can really do. On a local level, any efforts to educate young people on proper nutrition and getting GOOD FOOD into the schools would most likely help. The kids at the Catholic school in my hometown in WI went on “strike” last year for better more wholesome food in their school. They GOT IT. They are eating better. Long Term? Who knows. also..Speaking as a Fat, former smoker, I knew that cigarrets were bad for me. I quit 28 years ago but got cancer anyway (probably from my early smoking years). I KNOW I should not buy Chips, Cookies and Ice Cream but I still do. Not sure how the government is going to change that. I think my Kroger ChipMates are calling me 😉

  3. Maybe some day we will eat nothing but nutritious food, even if it’s in the form of rather tasteless gruel. And the IT guniuses in the coming generation will add to the wonders of technology a way to gouge to our heart’s content (pun fully intended) on virtual Twinkies, 54 ounce sugar drinks, and whatever else is utterly awful for us…….but tastes SOOOOOO good

  4. The “Twinkie” is only in a coma and may yet revive. It may succumb and be resurrected (since it, apparently has God like status)

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