A Philosopher's Blog

The State & Soda

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 1, 2012
Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths superma...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The mayor of New York is considering a ban on selling sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. The ban would not cover diet sodas, fruit juice, dairy products (like milkshakes) or alcohol. It also does not cover grocery or convenience stores. As might be suspected, the intent of this ban is to help combat obesity. About half of the adult population of the city is overweight and the mayor presumably hopes that this ban will help with this problem.

There are, of course, two key factual issues here. The first is whether or not the large drinks in question are a causal factor in obesity. The second is whether or not the ban would have the intended effect.

Not surprisingly, the folks in the relevant industries are claiming that the drinks are not the cause of the problem. On the one hand, it can be claimed that they are in error. After all, it does make sense that consuming large quantities of high calorie beverages (a 12 ounce soda has 124-189 calories) would contribute to people being overweight. On the other hand, it can be argued that this is not the case. After all, the drinks are not the only (or even main) source of calories and hence they are just one contributory cause among many. There is also the point that people are not compelled to consume the large beverages and people are, by in large, obese because of their choices. My considered view is that these drinks make it easier to be obese, but that it would be an error to cast them as the primary villains, so to speak.

In regards to the effectiveness of such a ban, it seems likely that the impact will be fairly minor. While people will not be able to get drinks over 16 ounces, they are not prevented from getting refills or buying as many as they want. While the 16 ounce limit will make it slightly less convenient to get a greater volume of sweet drinks, I suspect that this inconvenience factor will not be enough to impact the obesity problem. After all, people already buy multiple burgers or tacos and can probably adjust easily to getting multiple drinks. There is also the fact that the ban does not affect drinks whose calorie content can exceed that of the banned drinks and people can switch to those. For example, unsweetened apple juice has 169-175 calories per 12 ounce serving.

While the factual matters are of concern, what is of philosophical interest is whether or not the state has a right to impose such bans. As might be imagined, it is easy enough to argue for and against this right using the very same principles.

One reasonable principle is that the state has a legitimate role in preventing harm to the citizens and has a right to use its compulsive power in this capacity. The most obvious examples of this include the state’s role as a military protector and its role as the police. Another reasonable principle, taken from John Stuart Mill, is that the state does not have a right to impose on the liberty of individuals except in cases in which the individual’s actions could cause unwarranted harm to others. For example, the state clearly has a right to prevent citizens from murdering each other.

In the case of the sweet drink ban, it could be argued that the state is acting to prevent harm to the citizens and is thus operating within its legitimate rights. After all, the easy accessibility of high calorie foods in high volume servings makes it far easier for people to over-consume calories and this leads to increased obesity. Obesity presents a clear health threat to individuals as well as imposing significant costs on society (such as lost productivity and increase medical costs). As such, the state would be acting rightly in banning such sweet drinks.

One easy reply is to contend that the ban would not be effective (as argued above) and hence would be an imposition on liberty that fails to achieve its stated goal. It seems reasonable enough to accept that the state should not restrict liberty when doing so would not achieve the stated goal of the imposition-after all, the justification for the imposition would simply not be grounded.

Another reply, and the one I favor, is that even if the ban was to prove effective, it is still an illegitimate violation of liberty. The state does, of course, have a right to protect people from toxic ingredients, especially when such ingredients are not known to the consumer. To use a specific example to illustrate this, the state would be acting legitimately by banning companies from surreptitiously using lead  acetate in place of sugar as sweetener. This is because this substance is known to be toxic and most customers would not willingly consume “sweet lead.” In this case, the state would be protecting the customers from being harmed by the manufacturers. After all, companies do not have the liberty to poison ignorant customers.

In the case of the sweet drinks, the customer knows what s/he is getting: a high calorie (typically low nutrient) drink. While it is unwise and unhealthy to consume large amounts of such drinks, as long as the consumer is freely making the choice to drink the beverage and is aware of its contents and effects, then the state has no right to impose on the individual’s liberty. As usual, John Stuart Mill’s arguments in favor of liberty work quite well here. Naturally enough, the state would be well within its rights to require companies to make information about the beverages available to consumers so that they can make informed choices. However, treating adults as if they were children in this regard is not acceptable nor within the legitimate rights of the state. After all, what is solely the business of the individual is not the business of the state and how much sweet drink a person consumes would seem to be solely his or her business. The choice is thus the right of the individual, be it a good choice (to avoid sweet drinks) or a bad choice (to consume mass quantities of sugar water).

The obvious reply to this is that the harms done by obesity are not limited to the individual. Obesity increases health care costs for everyone, impacts productivity, and has other consequences that extend beyond the individual. Given that the obesity of an individual harms others, then it would seem that the state would have the right to step in and impose restrictions to counter obesity. After all, while people have every liberty to be as fat as they can and want to be, they do not have the right to expect the rest of society to also bear the consequences and costs of their poor choices.  To modify a stock line from the right in the US, why should the rest of us subsidize the cost of obesity-surely that would be a socialism of fat.  If this reasoning is plausible, then there seem to be two reasonable alternatives (and, of course, there might be others).

The first is that the state should act within its legitimate rights to endeavor to counter causal factors that significantly contribute to obesity (such as high volume high calorie beverages). The second is that individuals who wish to enjoy the liberty to be as fat as they choose to be would need to take full responsibility for the consequences of their choices. They would, for example, need to opt out of state medical support in regards to any conditions caused by or aggravated by their obesity, perhaps by purchasing special insurance. Provided that an individual was willing to eliminate the harms his/her choices would impose on others, then s/he would have the perfect right to do as s/he pleases. This is analogous to how certain states allow people to ride motorcycles without helmets provided that they have adequate insurance. Perhaps people could received special ID cards proving they have obesity insurance and  this would allow them to purchase large beverages (and other such things).

A second reply to the liberty argument is that it could be argued that the sweeteners used to create the sweet drinks is actually a toxic substance. Interestingly enough, lead acetate was once used as a sweetener until is was clearly established that it is, in fact, toxic. As such, it is not wildly implausible that the sweeteners currently in use are actually toxic substances that should be properly regulated. While it is easy enough to dismiss the idea that, for example, sugar could be toxic because it just sounds silly, it is rather important to make such assessments on the basis of scientific evidence. If sweeteners are not harmful, then an objective scientific investigation would surely show this. As such, those who think that it is silly to consider sugar and other sweeteners as toxic should insist on objective and extensive evaluation. After all, doing so would silence the rational critics of sweeteners and provide hard evidence to counter attempts to ban or restrict sweeteners and products that use them, such as sweet drinks.

My own view on the matter is that people have a right to the liberty of self-abuse (even self-destruction). However, this liberty does not allow them to impose on others. As such, the freedom to be fat comes with the responsibility to ensure that other people are not forced to bear the price that the individual alone should pay. As the hackneyed saying goes, freedom is not free-and this goes for fat freedom as well.

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2012 at 6:29 am

    We are but livestock of the Nanny State.

    Once the government finishes taking over medical care, they will feel justified in micromanaging all aspects of our lives.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Not as long as we remain men and refuse to be cattle. It is up to us, as always. Raise your bucket high and demand that it be filled with freedom!

      The government takeover is not much of a takeover. For example, the idea that the state will “come between me and my doctor” seems an odd thing to worry about given that my insurance company already does that. When I had my quadriceps tendon surgery, I learned a lot about how the system works. One excellent example is that BC/BS stopped covering the leg brace that is actually a medical necessity. Since the price of braces had been grotesquely inflated by the way medical pricing works, I had to lay out over $500 for it. At worst, we’d be trading the state for the insurance companies.

      Another point worth considering is that the current system rewards tests and treatments rather than results. This, interestingly enough, means that we have perhaps the most expensive medical system in the world, yet get less for our dollars than other countries. True-our top medical care is top, but that is another issue and does not show that we are not wasting money. Of course, it is only a waste for us-our waste is someone else’s sweet profits.

      • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2012 at 10:44 am

        Why is it that people willingly pay $500 for an Ipad but don’t think they should have to pay anything for medical care?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm

          I’m reasonably sure that most people think they should pay more than nothing for medical care. However, what they think has no bearing on whether or not medical care should be paid for or not.

          I am sure there are some folks who own $500 iPads who think medical care should be free (probably college, too). However, they probably have failed to think about how that would even be possible. A little Socratic method would probably change the minds of the rational among them.

          Also, people mean different things by “free” and this creates some confusion.

          • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm

            Free meaning they shouldn’t have to pay anything out-of-pocket…

  2. dhammett said, on June 1, 2012 at 9:09 am

    You’re free to be creative. Show an individualist’s flailr. Purchase a 32 oz. beverage container and a funnel.
    Wash it if you see fit. Or rough it like the settlers did. Dunk it in a creekbed.

    Then go out and buy two medium drinks. Sit at a table and pour them into your container. Proudly leave the establishment, proclaiming your right to drink even more than 16oz. By God man, you’re free!


    • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2012 at 10:51 am


      • dhammett said, on June 1, 2012 at 4:35 pm

        Just can’t get off the slippery slope. Probably because it’s so damn slippery. Why, if NYC can force its citizens not to buy 16 oz of soda—not what it’s doing, by the way—eventually the whole state can force us to purchase smaller sizes of soda, steaks, etc. They’ll force us to eat broccoli, or asparagus, or tres leches cake. Nanny will look over your shoulder to make sure you eat your fiber for breakfast. Nanny wants to make certain TJ has a satisfying daily bowel movement, 🙂
        I love the smell of steel-cut oatmeal in the morning. I don’t have room in this reply to sing the praises of steel-cut oatmeal. But believe me, I do not have my sights fixed on forcing you to eat a cup of steel-cut oatmeal in the morning. And I don’t think there’s a world where more than two or three people care about your breakfast or mine.

        Mike’s last three paragraphs are worthy of re-reading.. Give special emphasis to the first two sentences of the last paragraph.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 1, 2012 at 5:27 pm

          It is not a matter of the slope being slippery (I try to avoid that metaphor because of the slippery slope fallacy). Rather, the mayor is building a staircase step by step. Each step is a minor incursion (no trans-fat, no big drinks, and so on) but it adds up.

          Having been influenced by Mill’s arguments about liberty, I am not a fan of state compulsion in matters that seem to be the domain of the individual. This also leads me to support individual responsibility-either in terms of freeing others from being responsible for the individual’s poor choices or in terms of the individual taking steps to deal with the consequences of poor choices. So, if someone wants to be free to be fat, they need to get insurance adequate to the costs of their care or leave the system that provides public support.

          From a moral standpoint, if we accept that the public is responsible for us (that is, we take the coin), then we are obligated to accept the right of the public (the state) to impose on us in these regards. To stay free we must be willing to forgo the public support.

          This borrows from Socrates’ classic argument for obedience: if we accept the goods of society, this obligates us to obey the laws of society (but we are always in the right to try to persuade the state to change its ways). The Crito provides a rather good look at the problem of obedience.

          • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2012 at 8:57 pm

            “So, if someone wants to be free to be fat, they need to get insurance adequate to the costs of their care or leave the system that provides public support.”

            The main problem with this argument is that it completely ignores the evidence that people that smoke, are obese, etc. have *lower* total lifetime healthcare costs than healthy people who live long, long lives. If anything, obese people should pay lower insurance costs. Men should pay lower insurance costs, too, since they use fewer medical resources than women.

            • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm

              Start here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080204212858.htm

              Why do people resist this science? It is no different than birtherism in my view.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:25 am

              The lifetime costs are lower for obese people because they have shorter life expectancy. However, their cost per year is higher than people who are not obese. When doing the economic calculations we also need to take into account the extended productivity of healthy people. So, while healthy people live longer, they also have less sick days, are able to contribute longer and so on. This could help offset the greater cost that results from a longer lifespan. Also, in terms of economics, we are paying more for obese people and getting less in return.

              As the article you cite notes:

              “However, the authors argue that although obesity prevention may not be a cure for increasing expenditures, it may well be a cost-effective cure for much morbidity and mortality and importantly contribute to the health of nations.”

              It is also worth considering the following, also from the source you cite:

              A Perspective by Klim McPherson, from Oxford University in the UK, who was not involved in the study, discusses the implications of these findings and comments that “it would be wrong to interpret the findings as meaning that public-health prevention (e.g., to prevent obesity) has no benefits”; the quality of life experienced by individuals, and other factors, must also be taken into account when planning interventions aimed at improving public health.

            • dhammett said, on June 1, 2012 at 11:24 pm

              “It is no different than birtherism in my view.”

              What “is no different? The denial or the science? I think people deny birtherism because it’s based on speculation. . .Is denying science speculation? Or is science speculation?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:14 am

              As you note, people who do not smoke will cost more in the long run because they have a longer run. One estimate is that if everyone quit smoking, health care costs would increase 7% for men and 4% for women, at least according to the NEJM. The short term care costs of smokers is 40% over non smokers.

              However, the conclusion is “In the long term, complete smoking cessation would produce a net increase in health care costs, but it could still be seen as economically favorable under reasonable assumptions of discount rate and evaluation period.” As such, my argument still seems to work.

          • magus71 said, on June 1, 2012 at 9:08 pm

            I find it rather annoying Mike that you were vehemently against machines made to detect explosives on people entering airline planes yet you would consider banning soda ok under certain circumstances.

            And of course liberals that think soda should be banned want to legalize many drugs.

            Makes complete sense. Soda=bong hits.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:40 am

              I’m consistent in my principle that the state has the right to impose in order to prevent unwarranted harms. This requires that the action take actually be effective, which the body scanners are not.


              At the very least, if the state is going to violate my privacy rights the violation should at least achieve its stated goals.

              As far as the sweet drinks go, I accept that it could be banned on the condition that it is established that an ingredient (perhaps sugar) is toxic to a level that threatens health under conditions of normal consumption. This is consistent with my view that manufacturers should not be able to use lead in paint or food-something that seems reasonable.

              As far as drugs go, I do agree that drugs that are toxic and impair health should not be sold under the principle that the state should protect citizens from being harmed by others. However, given my principle that people have a right to self-abuse, I would accept that people have a right to consume harmful substances-provided that they do so with informed consent and are willing to accept the consequences of their actions.

              I do see the appeal in banning marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, and so on. After all, these are very harmful. However, pragmatism requires me to accept that the cure would be worse than the disease, hence to avoid greater harm we should allow these to be legal but also take steps to ensure that consumers are aware of the dangers and that said consumers are held personally accountable for their choices.

              If a manufacturer puts a dangerous substance in a product and claims it is safe, then the manufacturer is doing harm and should be dealt with legally. If the manufacturer clearly informs people of the risk of the substance and people knowingly use it anyway, then the consumer has to take much of the responsibility.

  3. magus71 said, on June 1, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Well, just as we were saying that people who didn’t like the economic situation in the US could leave, people leave states for better opportunities and less repression, too. And they are. Since 2010 NY State has been losing 100,000 people per year.

  4. magus71 said, on June 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Before you know it we’ll all be required to get “Speed Battle Cuts”.

    “Such dress and hair standards have long been a fixture of North Korean society. Kim Jong-Il was known for his so called “Speed Battle Cut” crew cut when he first came to prominence in the early 1980s, though he later reverted to the short sided bouffant favored by his father.”


    This soda stuff is the same line of thinking the Soviets followed.

    “It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.”~ Vladimir Lenin

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:10 am

      That seems unlikely. Bloomberg seems to be all about obesity and not haircuts. Also, while a case can be made as to why sugar should be legally controlled on health grounds, it seems like it would be difficult to make a harms argument for a haircut style.

      • magus71 said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:18 am

        Certain haircuts can make us bad people. Just ask the Army.

  5. Filip said, on June 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    As an economist, I think that the right solution to the obesity problem would be also the most efficient one: if your lifestyle choices impose negative external effects on others, e.g. by raising overall healthcare costs by X dollars, then you should compensate society by paying another X dollars on top of what you are paying now.

    In reality, this is almost impossible to implement which is why I am in favour of much higher taxes on soda and “fat” food.

    • T. J. Babson said, on June 1, 2012 at 10:34 pm

      Look at the evidence, Filip. The obese use less healthcare. Why do people deny the science?


      • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:48 am

        They use less because they die earlier. However, they use more per year. I would not consider the fact that they cost less because they die much sooner to be a positive thing.

        • T. J. Babson said, on June 2, 2012 at 11:31 am

          No, but it does not justify claims that they impose a burden on others.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 4, 2012 at 1:23 pm

            I’ve been thinking about your point regarding the fact that obesity, smoking and so on are less costly in the long term because it kills people at a younger age.

            Since the harm argument is based on facts, if the fact is that people being obese and so on kills them early and thus cuts our costs, then this aspect of the argument would fail. After all, if I save money because obese people die young, then their being obese does not harm me financially and hence I have no right to impose on them via the state. Ironically, if healthy people cost more than obese people, then it would seem that the state could impose on them to encourage them to behave in ways that would kill them off earlier as well. After all, it would seem that the healthy are (ironically) a greater burden than the obese smokers.

            In regard to the birther point, there are some important distinctions. To be a birther, a person would need to reject the document provided by the state of Hawaii and thus accept that the state government and all those associated with the document are involved in a conspiracy. This conspiracy would also involve all the people who claimed to have seen Obama there. Beyond that, it would have to be assumed that John McCain, Sarah Palin, Karl Rove and almost all the Republican top folks are in on the conspiracy as well (or have been duped somehow)-after all, they accept that he is an actual American. In short, a person would have to reject a vast amount of what seems to be rather objective, plausible evidence in favor of what seems to be an unfounded claim.

            In the case of the cost of obesity and so on, the studies are inductive in nature and there are legitimate grounds for disputing the data and results (after all, the articles cited do include the claims that while the cost seems higher based on the data considered, taking into account other factors could entail that healthy folks are still cheaper than obese folks in terms of medical care). Also, the data is just on health care costs and does not include factors like lost productivity, damage to things (like cases in which obese people have broken beauty salon chairs), and so on. So, a person could rationally argue that although obese people die sooner and thus might cost less in medical terms, they still cost more in terms of lost productivity and in other ways. Disputing the full cost of obesity thus seems to a be rational dispute and a conversation worth having.

            Naturally, if it turns out that obesity, smoking and so on do not impose harms on the rest of us, then my principle commits me to opposing restrictions on the behaviors in question. After all, what only hurts them is their business alone.

  6. magus71 said, on June 1, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Hey Mike, did you know that running can lead to increased rates of heart attack?

    “But vigorous exercise such as marathon running [increases] our cardiac risk by seven.”

    His study shows marathon runners suffer temporary heart damage because of the level of exertion when running such a long distance.


    So if we’re going to ban soda or tax people more whom drink it, I say we do the same for runners, especially the ones who log a lot of miles.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:47 am

      I did know that a marathon increases risk. After all, the guy who ran the first Marathon (after the battle of that name) dropped dead. Putting the body under stress and strain is risky. However, it is not the training that is the main risk, but the stress of the race.

      While a marathon does multiply the risk of a heart attack, as the article you cite notes “Exercise reduces cardiovascular risk by a factor three,” says researcher Eric Larose, an expert on exercise and cardio health. He heads research at the Institute Universitaire de Cardiologie et de Pneumologie de Quebec and Universite Laval in Quebec City. He headed up the leading study on the subject.” To get a proper perspective, we need to consider the short term risk of the marathon against the long term benefits of training. So, my chance of dying goes up when I am racing a marathon but my overall chance of dying is much lower because of all the marathon training. That seems like a reasonable trade off-accepting some risk in competition that is offset in the long term by the benefits of training.

  7. dhammett said, on June 1, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    “but it adds up”
    Yes. But Bloomberg’s staircase may be a sturdy one. It may be well-lit. The steps may be solid. Its banister may be well-constructed. It’s a good possibility that with such a construction one may reach the bottom safely and expect a positive outcome. One might ‘assume’ that it is not such a staircase, but, until it has been tested, the assumption remains an assumption.

    When one is on the slippery slope, if I understand the imagery, the only direction is down. If there’s a low coefficient of friction, and there are unavoidable dangers along the way, the likely outcome is negative. If it the coefficient of friction is high, the chances improve that one can halt one’s slide without experiencing too much harm. There’s even a possibility that the progress made will be worth the chance that was taken.
    In terms of personal freedom, we’ve barely placed a toe on the slippery slope in this country . We’ve always been cautious stair-builders. Yet we’d build a stairway to the moon, because it’s there and we want to be first. But stairs run both directions, and we are, sometimes, in my opinion, too cautious building stairways down to firmer foundations. .

  8. T. J. Babson said, on June 2, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Isn’t it obvious that this sort of legislation follows logically from people who believe that a large segment of our population does not have the cognitive ability to get an ID card?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 2, 2012 at 10:53 am

      That is a sweet example of a loaded question. 🙂 The concern over ID cards is not that people are too stupid to get cards. The main concern is over the obstacles to getting them (cost and accessibility of the issuing places). For example, people who are no longer able to drive legally often have no photo ID from the government and might have difficulty in getting to the DMV to get the ID they need. After all, they might mail in their votes. Also, while the cost of an ID doesn’t seem like much to most people, it does matter to some. There is also the fact that the places that issue the IDs have, in some cases, been closed or have reduced hours now.

      • I. M. Downtrodden said, on June 2, 2012 at 11:58 am

        Yo Mike–thanks for sticking up for us poor folk!

        Sent from my iPad3

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