July 23, 2012 | Posted By Hayley Dittus-Doria, MPH

As the world knows, obesity has become a public health epidemic over the last several years in the United States, with over 35% of US adults falling into the obese category.  But when public health experts and lawmakers try to “do the right thing” by forcing people to engage in healthier behavior, are they going too far?

In a June 8th article on CNN.com, Harriet Washington believes that the ban on sugary drinks that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed is the wrong way to go about encouraging healthy eating and drinking habits.  She also disagrees with “sin taxes,” stating that they often have unintended consequences.  In the sugary beverages ban proposal, restaurants, street carts, and movie theaters would not be able to sell any sugary drinks over 16 ounces.

While I don’t necessarily support an outright ban of sugary drinks, I do think that, for the most part, taxes imposed on items (such as those for tobacco and alcohol) are a great step toward discouraging people from partaking in these unhealthy behaviors and increasing state revenue at the same time.  Many states have implemented a tax on sugary beverages in recent years, and many others have tried, but failed, for a soda tax to catch on.  Mayor Bloomberg even proposed a soda tax in 2009 for NYC, yet this proposal was eventually abandoned and never came to fruition.

Another main point by Ms. Washington is that the “sugar-swiller” is hurting no one but himself and therefore a law shouldn’t be mandated.  Is this true?  Think of the billions of dollars spent on overweight and obese health problems.  Think of impressionable children, who learn by watching their parents that drinking soda and sugary beverages is a healthy way to live?  Is this hurting only one individual? 

Individuals and health groups are pleading for more education on the effects of sugary drinks and obesity in general, such as calling on a Surgeon General’s Report.  The Institute of Medicine has even outlined a national weight loss plan that “puts the blame on a social structure that promotes unhealthy choices.”  The plan supports a tax on sugary drinks, limiting marketing of unhealthy foods, and places a focus on obesity prevention, rather than treatment.

Unfortunately, the rate of obesity continues to rise.  Ms. Washington states that “imposing an outright ban is less ethical than public health leadership that induces behavior change.”  While I completely agree with this statement, the ban Bloomberg proposed is not an outright ban, but rather a size limit on sugary drinks sold.  I believe that public health leadership does induce change and public health leaders are, in fact, supportive of these taxes and bans.  Without public health leadership taking control of the situation, how much longer can we wait to see if obesity rates drop on their own?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.