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Nanny State v. Good Public Policy

In February 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama is celebrating the fourth year of her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity in this country. One-third of children in the United States are still obese, although the rate is declining. Childhood obesity puts children at high risk for developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Obesity is also an epidemic among adults in this country, causing lost productivity in the workforce, more sick leave, and more disability claims. 

Establishing a need for better health among the people of the United States is not difficult; determining and agreeing upon the way to work toward that goal is. To mark the beginning of the fourth year of her Let’s Move campaign, the First Lady announced new restrictions on the advertising of sugary drinks and junk foods on school grounds. These restrictions seem to be a logical extension of the previous rules against selling such drinks and foods in vending machines on school grounds or providing them in school lunches. 

In addition to the new restrictions on advertising, it was announced on February 27, 2014, that nutrition labels will undergo a makeover for the first time in over twenty years. The labels will better reflect the actual size of a portion and will put the items that are most important to consumers–such as calories, sugar, fat–near the top of the label.

Are all these new rules and restrictions creating a “Nanny State,” where the government intrudes into our private lives assuming it knows what is best for us, or is the government simply protecting public health which is a legitimate function of government regulation? Those that think the new restrictions move toward the creation of a Nanny State point to former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to ban supersize sodas. They argue that people must retain the right to choose what they eat and drink, even if it is not healthy. On the other side of the argument, protecting public health is an appropriate role for the government, since tax dollars will be used to pay for the consequences of bad choices leading to bad health. If the government provides information in better formats, such as the revised nutrition labels, the consumer can still make the ultimate choice but will be able to make a more informed choice.

As for restricting advertising of a product to minors, there is actually precedent: alcohol and cigarette advertising is tightly regulated, particularly with respect to its marketing to children. Obviously some of this is because the products can only legally be bought and consumed by people over the age of twenty-one. But a large part of the ban on cigarette advertising on TV, and the tight self-regulation of alcohol makers on whom their marketing targets is because getting young kids hooked on either of these products has been proven to have harmful health effects. Is the restriction of advertising of sugary drinks to children, known to help cause childhood obesity, any different?

Striking a balance between protecting public health and preserving individual choice is never easy. Your Denver Personal Injury Attorney Jordan Levine is only a phone call away if you have any questions.

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