Mark Bittman: Government Is 'on Our Side' When It Stops Us From Eating What We Want to Eat


New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, who last year expressed enthusiasm for the "fun" and "exciting" project of micro-managing other people's diets via carefully calculated taxes and subsidies, today asks: Why not start with poor people? Bittman likes the idea of preventing food stamp recipients from using their taxpayer-funded scrip to buy products that do not meet with his approval. But he would not stop there:

Added sugar is not the only dangerous food. But unlike animal products, for example, which we also overconsume, it has no benefits. Yet we down it at the rate of 150 pounds per person per year, and while scientists argue whether it is addictive in humans (it meets the criteria for addiction in animals), it is most certainly habit-forming. [Robert H.] Lustig and his co-authors suggest [in a recent Nature article] that actions like imposing taxes on added sugar or establishing a minimum age for purchase of sodas (they mention 17 in their paper) would reduce consumption.

The question "Is this necessary?" is unavoidable. But as obesity and its consequences ravage our health care system, we struggle not only with our own diets but also with preventing our children from falling into the same traps…

We need the government on our side. It must acknowledge the dangers caused by the most unhealthy aspects of our diet and figure out how to help us cope with them, because this is the biggest public health challenge facing the developed world.

I'm not sure what difference Bittman perceives between "addictive" and "habit-forming." Although cigarettes, for instance, were once said to be the latter but not the former, scientists have long since abandoned that distinction. In any case, these labels do nothing to illuminate the public policy issue, which is whether the government has any business trying to stop us from eating sugar (or other politically incorrect food ingredients). Bittman believes it does, so deeply that he does not even think it necessary to offer a reason or anticipate possible objections. Notice that he asks whether such meddling is "necessary," not whether it is legitimate, and even then does not answer the question. Instead Bittman suggests that people are addicted to sugar, which he thinks means they have no choice but to consume it and therefore must be rescued from this self-destructive habit by benign overseers like him. That is how he imagines the government is "on our side" when it uses force to stop us from eating what we want to eat. Bittman knows that we do not really want to eat sugar, or at least that we should not want to eat sugar, which in his mind is more or less the same thing.