July 4, 2022

Nanny State and obesity #2: The importance of an equitable solution

What are the core values when implementing policies to address obesity?

What are the core values that we should uphold when implementing policy to address obesity? In a new article leading academics from the Johns Hopkins Berman institute of bioethics have explored this question in the context of consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). The ethicists identified fairness, consistency and the avoidance of stigmatization as the three necessary elements of any solution.

The ethicists drew connections and distinctions between the following three different ways of reducing SSB consumption: (1) restricting sale of SSBs in public schools, (2) levying significant taxes on SSBs, and (3) prohibiting the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly food stamps program) benefits for the purchase of SSBs.

A ban on school sales of SSBs and, to a lesser degree, taxation of SSBs, score well in terms of fairness, the ethicists argue, as they apply across demographics, while the proposed food stamp ban targets SNAP participants exclusively. Such a practice, proposed in California, Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin and Texas, would not “pass ethical acceptability.”

The authors dismiss the objection that a sales tax is unfair to lower-income individuals, saying “regressive taxation becomes most troubling from a fairness perspective when applied to basic necessities—such as clothing, housing, or food. Sugar-sweetened beverages, containing no nutritional value, are not a basic necessity.”

The authors address the “nannying” concerns squarely by highlighting that under all of the policies considered, SSBs remain widely available to the public. They also emphasise that not all liberties are not of paramount importance. Governments have essential duties to protect our fundamental freedoms. However, in providing disincentives to unhealthy products such as SSB, the government simply is discouraging the consumption of less healthful products. The personal pleasure to be derived from consumption of SSBs is absolutely worthy of consideration, and yet such pleasure does not rise to the level of a fundamental freedom.”

Xavier Symons
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