Harris Poll Reflects and Reinforces Incoherent Thinking About 'Public Health'


Based on a recent survey, Harris Interactive reports that "many Americans [are] ambivalent over laws aimed at healthy living." That's a kind way of putting it. The results actually suggest that Americans' views on the subject are incoherent. 

Eighty-one percent of the respondents "somewhat" or "strongly" agreed that "people should take personal responsibility for their own actions and be free to make their own decisions, even if they suffer as a result." At the same time, 86 percent supported "requiring drivers and passengers in the front seats to wear seat belts," 82 percent supported "requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets," 80 percent supported "banning smoking in restaurants and other enclosed public places," 78 percent supported "requiring restaurants to show nutritional information on menus," 73 percent supported "requiring bicyclists to wear helmets," 68 percent supported "regulations to reduce salt in packaged foods," and 62 percent supported "banning the use of trans fats in restaurants." While some of these policies, such as government-imposed smoking bans and mandatory calorie counts, could be described as "consumer protection" measures, they are all essentially paternalistic, aimed at preventing adults from accepting risks the government deems unacceptable.

The only such policy opposed by most respondents was "putting a new tax on soft drinks with high sugar content," which only 38 percent supported. Majorities (65 percent and 76 percent, respectively) also opposed "employers not hiring people who smoke because it could cost more to insure them" and "employers not hiring people who are obese because it could cost more to insure them." Assuming these folks would support banning those policies, we do start to see a thread of consistency: People like the government to impose their tastes, values, and preferences on recalcitrant businesses.

Two of the policies mentioned in the survey, "banning texting while driving" (favored by 91 percent of respondents) and "banning the overall use of cell phones while driving" (70 percent), are aimed at protecting other people. The remaining two are aimed at protecting minors: "requiring the vaccination of young children against mumps, measles, whooping cough, TB, polio and other diseases" (favored by 86 percent) and "requiring the vaccination of children ages 11-12 against HPV, the virus that can cause cervical cancer" (61 percent). While these four policies are not necessarily justified, the rationales for them are fundamentally different from the rationales for making people wear motorcycle helments or stopping them from buying food containing trans fats.

Harris Interactive blurs these important distinctions, asking people whether "laws, policies and programs like those listed in the previous question are sometimes necessary to prevent us from being hurt by the actions of other people who cause accidents or do other dangerous things" (81 percent said yes) and whether "laws, policies and programs like those listed in the previous question are turning us into a 'nanny state' where we rely too much on the government to protect us from danger" (61 percent thought so). By lumping together private action with government action, policies aimed at protecting children with policies aimed at protecting adults, and policies aimed at protecting people from each other with policies aimed at protecting people from their own risky decisions, the pollsters promote the incoherence on which they remark.

For more on seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws (in particular, why resistance to the latter has been much more successful than resistance to the former), see my 2005 Reason feature "Freedom Riders." For more on public health paternalism, see my 2007 essay "An Epidemic of Meddling."

[Thanks to Vic McDonald for the tip.]