â€œIt may be better to live under robber barons,â€ wrote C.S. Lewis, â€œthan under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baronâ€™s cruelty may sometimes sleep…but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.â€ Now there was a fellow who knew a thing or two.
Lewis would not be surprised by a recent jeremiad in the journal Nature, arguing that sugar is just as bad for you as tobacco and alcohol, and we all ought to be forced to eat a lot less of it. The authors think it would be grand if the government slapped hefty taxes on foods with added sugar, and outlawed the sale of sugary drinks to minors, and kept sugary-drink-selling stores away from schools and any place inhabited by people who are poor and fat and therefore, presumably, stupid. (Wellâ€"â€œlow-income areas plagued by obesityâ€ is how the news stories put it. But we all know what they meant.)
Self-appointed food police have been pitching Twinkie taxes, soda taxes, and so on for years. And like advocates of every stripe, they are sometimes prone to exaggerating.
Last month researchers (including one at Virginia Tech) claimed slapping a penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks would raise $13 billion in revenue, save $17 billion in health costs, and prevent (kid you not) 2,600 premature deaths a yearâ€"all because it would lead the average adult American to cut nine calories a day. Nine.
Meanwhile, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has ginned up some good publicity by erecting a couple of anti-cheese billboards in Albany, New Yorkâ€"dairy country, that is. The billboards show a manâ€™s fat gut and a womanâ€™s hamhock thighs and say itâ€™s all cheeseâ€™s fault.
The FDA, for its part, continues to move forward with plans to restrict salt. The agency started studying the issue five years ago. By last December it had published a proposal in the Federal Register seeking comments on â€œcurrent and emerging approaches designed to promote sodium reduction.â€
But the FDA will have to work faster if it wants to keep up with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His administration already is spearheading a â€œnationwide effort to reduce salt in restaurant and packaged foods.â€ It also has banned trans-fats and smoking in bars, launched a P.R. campaign against occasional smoking, and is in the process of restricting alcohol sales and advertising in the city.
Bloomberg is doing this with the approval of his own conscience: As he said at a U.N. conference last fall, making â€œhealthy solutions the default social optionâ€ is â€œultimately governmentâ€™s highest duty.â€ New York Sen. Chuck Schumer evidently agrees and wants to get in on the action. He has asked the FDA to review and possibly ban powdered caffeine. Heâ€™s worried a new product called AeroShot could become the next â€œclub drug.â€ No word yet on Schumerâ€™s thoughts about NoDoz or coffee.
As Lewis said, such paternalism â€œstings with intolerable insult.â€ It stings all the more because in some cases the government has exacerbated the very problem supposedly requiring redress. Take high-fructose corn syrup, which the Nature piece urges regulating more tightly and which is widely used as a sweetener in the U.S.
Why is it widely used? Blame Washingtonâ€™s import quotas on foreign sugar â€" and its massive subsidies for corn. Corn is the run-away winner in the farm subsidy Olympics: The Environmental Working Group estimates Americans have shelled out nearly $80 billion in corn subsidies over the past decade and a half.
So first weâ€™re forced to pay on the front end for the overproduction of corn, thereby encouraging the use of high fructose corn syrup, and now weâ€™re supposed to pay again on the back end, through soda taxes and the like, to prevent ourselves from drinking too much of it. Brilliant.
This is not an isolated case, either. Recently the EPA imposed strict new smokestack regulations on power companies to reduce, among other things, the release of highly toxic mercury emissions from electricity generation. Wouldnâ€™t want people to breathe that, right? At the same time, new federal light bulb standards effectively have required consumers to purchase newer and more efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.
And hey, guess what? The average CFL bulb contains about five milligrams of mercury. According to Scientific American, when a CFL breaks, â€œmercury escapes as a vapor that can be inhaled and as a fine powder that can settle into carpet and other textiles.â€ In fact, the hazard from CFLs is significant enough that when one breaks, a certain federal agency recommends (a) evacuating all people and pets from the area, (b) opening a window and airing the room out, (c) shutting off your central air system, and (d) collecting the debris and powder in a sealable glass container, since a plastic bag canâ€™t contain the vapor.
Which agency offers those recommendations? The EPAâ€"the very same one that imposed the new smokestack emissions rules. Lewis would not be surpised by that, either.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.