Meet Your New Mom: Kathleen Sebelius and Cigarette Warnings

Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius recently made a revealing statement on how she perceives the role of government and her place within it. She said, regarding the new FDA-mandated cigarette labels, that “The regulations are justified … because tobacco causes 443,000 premature deaths, and creates “$200 billion a year in health costs that we clearly could spend better elsewhere.” Following that logic, why not also mandate photos of lipo-suctioned fat on the menus at McDonald’s? Why not ban selling “King Size” bags of M&Ms or bars of Snickers? Surely these goods are also not beneficial to health, and the savings from less coronary bypass surgeries could be spent “better elsewhere” as well. It seems that Sebelius sees herself as America’s Mom, who has the authority to restrict consumer choices if she sees it in the interest of better health or in the interest of reducing overall health care costs.

"Put that Snickers down now!"

Not only does this parental philosophy on government violate the individual liberty of each citizen to decide for him/herself what food or product yields the most value (has Sebelius even considered that consumers do not value “health” over taste or satisfaction in many instances?), but it also presupposes that bad habits are the root cause of America’s high health care expenses. This could not be further from the truth, as it is instead government-run health care programs that exacerbate the problem of runaway spending by leaving consumers of tobacco or fatty foods with no financial incentive to limit unhealthy habits (as beneficiaries bear few to none of the costs associated with their treatment).

Conversely, individuals with private insurance face an increased financial burden for leading an unhealthy lifestyle because it leads to higher insurance premiums and more frequent co-pays for more doctor visits and for more prescribed pharmaceuticals.  Therefore, a free-market health care system naturally disincentivizes many of the things that HHS and the FDA have decided to regulate against; however, the key difference between the two approaches is that the decision to choose a salad over French fries is an individual choice, a personal assessment of the costs versus the benefits, and not something that has been imposed from the top-down by a government bureaucracy.