Monday, June 4, 2012

The Soda Ban and changing behavior

The NYT has a fascinating additional angle on Mayor Bloomberg's ban on large servings of sugary drinks in New York City. This 'Room for Debate' article asks what it means for our ability to influence or change human behavior in general. And that is obviously a central interest on this blog.

Some libertarians see this as a chilling example of an interfering nanny state. No doubt prohibition often only makes people want something more, as some contributors argue. Good intentions can often be counterproductive.

On the other hand, this kind of view doesn't help matters:

We are not an overweight-obese nation just because we drink sugary beverages. We are obese and overweight from self-medicating with sugar, starch, alcohol, tobacco and other forms of serotonin increasing, anxiety decreasing substances because we live in a psychological culture that deprives us of essential social nutrients such as respect, dignity, being listened to and valued as human beings.

Maybe Mayor Bloomberg should ban all public displays of rude and insulting behavior, and mandate respect and appreciation toward one another as a way of healing the real cause of why we are eating, drinking and inhaling substances to help numb ourselves against the onslaught of the disrespect and disconnection we experience daily.
It replaces the issue with a root-causes argument of such staggering broadness that it defeats any chance of incremental improvement. Yes, people should have more respect sometimes. But we surely don't have to wait for utopia to make minor changes to NYC fast food menu options.

And here's another view:

Of course we should be informed about risks; such education can cut through collective misunderstandings. But information alone rarely does the job. Changing the norms that guide our behaviors will take more. Persuasive campaigns that employ the insights of advertising and social marketing will be critical.

As we have learned from anti-tobacco efforts, taxing dangerous products and raising their price can dramatically shape consumer behaviors. Making unhealthy choices too expensive — “not worth it” — ultimately changes consumer norms.

This gets at the problem of will: people often do not act in their own self-interest, even when rationally they want to. And dieting is the classic example. Is it wrong to give people a little help or a nudge to do what most want to do anyway? Very few people actually want or choose to be obese. It is rarely a conscious outcome of liberty.

I think the ban is worth trying. Buying 20 oz servings of fizzy drinks is hardly a fundamental freedom, and I think most arguments that there is a slippery slope from this to tyranny are a little silly.

Some on the right think it's a sign that if government is involved with healthcare, then it will gradually be impelled to interfere with most of our lives. But I don't think it should be turned into a partisan argument about government healthcare. With or without Obamacare, the federal government will spend a trillion dollars on Medicare and Medicaid each year. It's not wrong to try to make citizens healthier, and save billions of dollars in the process. Better to spend scarce tax dollars on useful things like the Coastguard or protecting us against foreign hackers, than preventable diseases caused by obesity.

And obesity is just as big a problem for the private sector, as skyrocketing health insurance premiums undermine competitiveness, take-home pay and other consumer spending.

It does show there is a lingering public resentment of experts telling us what to do, especially when expert wisdom is often wrong or misguided. (Medical advice had often been suspect, from the days of leeches to current controversies over salt intake or cancer screenings). But that is not a reason to ignore all expert guidance, or claim making people healthier is not a legitimate aim of public policy.




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