Successful public health initiatives have often compromised individual or corporate freedoms: Restrictions on where you can dump your sewage; seat belt requirements; limits on smokers; food safety standards; mandatory label warnings. From the point-of-view of public health policy, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed restrictions on the size of sugared soft drink containers makes perfect sense: childhood obesity is a real public health problem, over-consumption of sugared soft drinks really is a contributing factor, and research shows most kids won’t buy two 16-oz drinks if they can’t get a 32-oz bottle; they’ll drink 16 ounces and be satisfied (contrary to Granlund’s illustration above).
But, as I note in an editorial today, “Bloomberg is catching loud scorn from those who like to cry “nanny state” at any government initiative that doesn’t involve restricting people’s sex lives.” The distinctions and lessons of public health policy are lost on people who “who pledge undying fealty to the unalienable right to consume sugared water in quantities larger than the capacity of the human stomach.”
That said, I don’t support Bloomberg on this one, mostly because, while efforts to promote portion control are good, it is government overreach for a municipal board to dictate packaging and marketing decisions to businesses. The cup sizes at 7-11 are beyond the purview of a local board of health.
But what is clearly within the mayor’s purview are the New York City Public Schools, where Bloomberg can legitimately influence the diets of 1.1 million kids — through healthier cafeteria food, which Bloomberg has apparently done. More to the point, he could bring back gym class, forcing rigorous physical activity every day into the sedentary lives of thousands of overweight youngsters. Since the ancient Greeks, physical training has been considered part of the mission of all schools. Gym class — even recess — has steadily disappeared from public education because government forced more time to be spent on academics and school administers (and teachers unions) have refused to lengthen the school day to accommodate “luxuries” like art, music, recess and gym.
Over the millennia, evolution taught our bodies to store excess sugars and fats, a talent that, in the age of the Big Gulp and the remote control, leads inevitably to obesity. The schools can best respond to this public health threat by teaching kids about healthy eating and by getting them off their obese butts for daily exercise.