Nannychusetts Fights Obesity

The paternalists continue on the march. But don’t worry, it’s for our own good!

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes:

THE WORTHIES who govern Massachusetts haven’t been able to keep the state’s population from dwindling, its property taxes from soaring, its budget from imploding, its Big Dig from leaking, or its politicians from getting arrested. But failure hasn’t diminished their ambition – or their presumption: Now they’re going to keep the rest of us from overeating.

On Thursday, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration launched Mass in Motion, a new war on obesity that it calls “the most comprehensive effort to date to address the serious problem of overweight and obesity in the Commonwealth.” Already up and running is a shiny new website, which appears to consist mostly of trite exhortations to eat sensibly and do more exercise. Needless to say, the administration plans to spend money on its crusade, current budget straits notwithstanding. After all, if the state doesn’t pump $750,000 into such “wellness initiatives” as “expanding the availability of farmers’ markets” and designing “transportation systems that encourage walking,” who will?

But the heart of the new campaign, as with most government initiatives, is coercion. Following the lead of California, New York City, and Seattle, Massachusetts officials plan to compel restaurant chains to conspicuously post the calorie content of all their offerings, either on the menu or at the counter. Obesity warriors want restaurants to be forced to publicize the nutritional content of the foods they sell so that consumers can make a reasoned decision about what to eat. “People often really are not aware of what’s sitting on their plate,” the director of Boston Medical Center’s nutrition and weight management program, Dr. Caroline Apovian, told The Boston Globe. “But if the information is sitting right in front of you . . . it’s hard to deny.”

Actually, not that hard. When it comes to nutrition as to so much else, human beings are quite adept at denying, ignoring, or discounting information they would rather not deal with. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Vermont found that the more often one eats in fast-food restaurants, the less likely he is to pay attention to food labels. “These . . . data suggest,” they concluded, that “recent legislation advocating for greater labeling of restaurant food may not be particularly effective.”

Is it really the job of the state to coerce restaurants into confronting diners with information most of them aren’t interested in? The food-service industry is exceptionally competitive and highly sensitive to customer preferences; if enough diners wanted to look at obtrusive calorie charts when eating out, restaurants would already be providing them. Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine puts his finger on it: “A legal requirement is necessary not because diners want conspicuous nutritional information but because, by and large, they don’t want it.”

I’m glad to know that other people love me enough to try to run my life for my own good.  But could they step back and reflect on the founding of the republic?  The American colonists affirmed the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not of being bossed around by bureaucrats and politicians.