When the Nanny State Is Mistaken

One of the problems of letting the Nanny State tell you what you can put into your body is that it often tells you to do things that are downright harmful to your health (like telling you to smoke rather than use smokeless tobacco), or that sacrifice your freedom for little gain to your health (like telling you to avoid fat and eat starch instead).

Now, England’s Independent newspaper reports that smokers would avoid many health risks if they used smokeless tobacco, such as snus (which does not require spitting), rather than cigarettes, since the mortality rate from cigarettes is many, many times greater than the very low mortality rate from snus. But there’s a problem: the European Union bans snus, supposedly on health grounds, although it has never attempted to ban cigarettes (which are heavily taxed in Europe and provide a great deal of government revenue), which are much more widely consumed and thus more difficult to ban. The net result of this peculiar ban is that nicotine addicts continue smoking cigarettes, which pose serious health risks, rather than switching to a less lethal source of nicotine like snus.

Much of what the Nanny State says is often mistaken or exaggerated. For example, as John Tierney notes in the New York Times, former Surgeon General Koop falsely claimed that fatty food was as much a threat to public health as smoking. But it turns out that what you eat is much less important than how much you eat in determining whether you get fat and suffer obesity-related diseases. (And being conventionally overweight, as opposed to downright obese, does not seem to pose a large health risk anyway). The food pyramid distributed by the government, which encouraged people to eat lots of bread, cereals, and starches, rather than protein and fat, probably exacerbated the obesity problem, since plenty of fat people love starchy foods and carbs, while fat quickly satiates the hunger of many people. If you want to be thin, eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean meat and fish helps. But eating fat is no more harmful to your waistline than eating starchy foods. Indeed, much cheap protein comes mixed with fat, so fanatically excluding fat from your diet may result in a diet that is carb-heavy and nutrient-poor. Many dieters fail to consume adequate protein, resulting in muscle loss and a slowing of metabolism.

Another example of misguided Nannyism may be the FDA Tobacco Regulation bill currently pending in Congres. As CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman notes, it may actually end up harming, rather than helping, public health, and may make it harder to market reduced-risk tobacco products to smokers currently facing major risks to their health from cigarettes.