My father-in-law has mentioned occasionally that he thinks the next big smoking-type battle in American health will be over obesity and the sale of basically unhealthy food to people. His point being that obesity is a huge health issue in the United States, and that as people become aware of the dangers, there will be increasing pressure put on politicians to Do Something about it.
New York appears to be among the first in the nation to move forward with this. Today, the New York Times reported that the city health department has urged city restaurants to stop selling food with trans fats. It's a strictly voluntary program for now, but the NYC's health commissioner likened trans fats to asbestos and lead. In a year the city will conduct another survey and decide what further steps, if any, need to be taken to curb the consumption of trans fats.
In other, apparently unrelated news, the NHTSA released a study about the effects of the repeal of the mandatory helmet law in Florida. To the surprise of probably nobody, the major result has been an increase in the fatalities and serious injuries suffered by motorcyclists in accidents. The relative frequency of accidents involving motorcycles has remained fairly constant with the population of motorcylcists; but the number of accidents where the rider was killed increased dramatically.
These two items both address a fundamental tension in a democratic society. By just about any standard, riding a motorcycle without a helmet is a foolish thing to do - even the best motorcyclist can get cut off or hit by a car weighing over a ton and moving at speed, to say nothing of trucks and SUVs. The helmet is, as the Florida data shows, a life-saving device. In the same way, we know that trans fats are bad for people who eat them in almost every way; they have almost no nutritive value and can lead to some seriously bad health problems.
Each case seems to present a straightforward case of bad or foolish behavior with little to recommend it. So it's understandable that, with the best of intentions, some people would try to ban them - mandatory helmet laws were once common, and the town of Tiburon in California has apparently banned the sale of trans fats in its restaurants. Except...
Well, people like to do it. People like riding bareheaded down the highway on their choppers. People like eating rich, trans-fat laden desserts. And although we know the behavior is wrong, do we have the right to prevent them from doing it? Put another way, does the community interest in keeping people alive and healthy outweigh the individual's right to enjoy himself even if the way he enjoys himself is unhealthy, dangerous, or borderline suicidal?
Here, in general, I think we have to say "No." At either extreme, of course, things are unpleasant: a society in which "Do as thou wilt" really is the whole of the law wouldn't be much of a society in any meaningful way; and a society so protective of its members' well-being as to regulate virtually all their behavior would be insufferable. But in between those extremes, a balance has to be struck. And generally speaking, we shouldn't be in the habit of regulating behavior that affects only the individual doing it.
It's true that obesity and its related illnesses cost us all fantastic sums as health care costs, and the same is true of the dead or incapacitated motorcyclists who would have survived had they been wearing helmets. But these I think are costs we need to bear as part of the price of living in a more-or-less free society. The whole point of liberty is the opportunity for self-government. The exercise of one's own judgment about what risks and moral choices are appropriate for oneself is a benefit that's not really calculable in monetary terms; it is literally priceless.
The question becomes murkier when we consider behavior like smoking that actually does affect other people; the effects of second-hand smoke are well-documented. And in that case, where the behavior is not merely harming the smoker, but people around him, I can see the point of regulating the behavior. Not to protect the smoker from himself, but as a matter of public health to protect non-smokers from joining in the habit against their will. A motorcyclist or a McDonald's customer, though, isn't making other people ride without a helmet or forcing a royale with cheese down his neighbor's protesting throat. It's all well and good for New York to warn its citizens about the dangers of trans fats, but hopefully they'll have the good sense to leave the decision about what people want to eat to the people who are actually doing the eating.
Regardless of how super-sized they get as a result.