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The New Tobacco Industry

Entry 1610, on 2013-12-22 at 17:17:53 (Rating 3, Politics)

Most people now consider smoking a bad thing and support efforts to eradicate it. At the same time many people (me included) are uncomfortable about political programs which are designed to modify people's behaviour and remove personal choice. Yes, I do rate personal freedom as a very high priority. That is where I agree with the libertarian agenda - it's their economic ideology I have trouble with!

As far as I know no western country has outlawed smoking completely or made tobacco products illegal, but they have used numerous political, social, and economic tools to make smoking less acceptable. Of course, the less socially acceptable it is the more some people will want to do it, but the strategy does seem to be successful overall because the percentage of people who smoke has dropped significantly.

So while smoking hasn't been completely eradicated yet, it is on the way out and it now seems we should ask what is the next problem of a similar type which should be tackled? Judging from the alarming results of a number of recent studies maybe it should be obesity. This seems to be a growing problem (excuse the pun) in the western world and one with huge social and economic costs because of the health effects of being significantly overweight.

But this is a personal freedom thing again. if people want to live on junk food and drink nothing but sugar water of various sorts, isn't that their choice? Well, yes and no (and you might recognise, yet again, my favourite answer to these sorts of questions).

It should be a choice but one based on good information and without dishonest coercion from those with a vested interest in the subject. So should advertising of junk food be banned? Actually I would prefer advertising of everything to be banned because it's really just a legal way for companies to lie to the public, as well as being tedious and repetitive. But that will never happen and good and fair advertising (if it actually exists) can genuinely inform people of new products so I guess I need to look at other options.

So what about using the tax system? This is the obvious choice because apart from the propaganda coming from advertising the next biggest issue is the fact that junk food is cheap. The market has failed (as it always does) to put a real price on junk food so it's up to the government to intervene and add a bit extra in to account for the negative effects. So taxing junk food (difficult to define, I know) and removing tax from healthy food (again, there would be some debate of what this actually is) would likely have a considerable positive effect.

There has been pressure to remove GST from healthy food for years now but successive governments have refused to do it because they want to keep the GST system pure and simple. That is a fair point because simplicity is good, but I think the potential benefits might outweigh the disadvantages in this case.

In fact once a precedent was set removing GST could be used as a tool to encourage other positive behaviour as well. But as I write that sentence I feel a bit uncomfortable again: what about that pesky personal freedom thing? There's no easy answer, I guess.

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Comment 1 (3783) by GadgetDon on 2013-12-22 at 19:03:56:

If you want a different view on the commonly held view of the scourge of being fat, check out http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com

Yes, fat people suffer from some health problems. So do skinny people. When a skinny person comes in with elevated blood sugar or high cholesterol, they are treated as the medical issue it is. When a fat person comes in with those, they are told to lose weight. Surprise! The skinny person's problems get better so treatment is cheaper, the fat person's problems get worse requiring more expensive treatments, and it's blamed on being fat.

And as for the prescription of "lose weight", which I personally have gotten for everything from problems sleeping, upset stomach, and even a sprained wrist - every study says that any weight lost on a program is regained and then some, after messing up the person's metabolism. The very best programs boast of a 5-10 pound weight loss long term. As a prescription for changing things, weight loss makes the use of leeches look like sound medical advice.

You want to remove the huge social and economic costs of being significantly overweight? (1) Stop ostracizing the overweight people from society, (2) have doctors treat them just like other patients, look at the actual symptoms and diseases rather than "fat person so must lose weight", and (3) provide equal treatment. And watch those huge social and economic costs disappear.

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Comment 2 (3785) by OJB on 2013-12-22 at 21:38:10:

Yes, I have heard this argument before and it does have some merit. People can be somewhat overweight and still be healthy. However I think the consensus is that being significantly overweight does have negative health consequences, plus there are other health issues arising from a junk food diet.

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Comment 3 (3790) by GadgetDon on 2013-12-23 at 04:34:38:

Again, read specifically the posts at http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/are-fat-people-at-higher-risk/ and http://danceswithfat.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/five-terrible-arguments/

The "consensus" is so strong, nobody asks the question "what if they're wrong" so every bit of research is done based with the assumption that the consensus is correct. Results in bad science and worse public policy. But even if being significantly overweight does have some consequences - there's no study saying that going from significantly overweight to a "healthy" weight is practical, no study showing that any of the various methods of weight loss have anything resembling a reasonable success rate at weight loss so the significantly overweight become no longer overweight and keep it off. If a company proposed a drug for, say, diabetes that would temporarily affect symptoms but in 99.9% of the patients the disease came back even worse, the FDA would NEVER allow it on the market. But still "lose weight" is a medical prescription given dozens of times every day, even for health problems that nobody attaches to weight.

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Comment 4 (3791) by OJB on 2013-12-23 at 08:44:50:

Yes, I see your point. As I said in the original post I am uncomfortable about trying to use social engineering to modify people's behaviour. However nothing I saw at that blog showed that the negative health effects don't exist, and according to leading organisations such as WHO they clearly do.

New studies on the subject are being done all the time, so if the original consensus was wrong that would soon become apparent. I know weight loss regimes have a very low success rate, but even if losing weight wasn't practical for already overweight people having better food would stop people becoming obese in the first place.

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