Monday, 11 June 2012

Super size drink ban – the view from Europe

As an American living in Europe I am obviously confronted with frequent differences from my homeland. One of the most typical is the very profound difference in the way that Europeans and Americans view the state and its role in people’s daily lives.

I’ve been encountering this difference this week in the very different reactions to the news that New York mayor Mike Bloomberg wants to ban supersize soft drinks from being sold in restaurants and movie theaters. I have a number of friends here, mostly in the UK, who regularly watch the Daily Show. And they were perplexed by Jon Stewart’s rant last week against the proposal.

“I don’t understand, isn’t he on the left?” one Irish friend asked me. Given the obesity epidemic in the United States, he was confused as to why anyone would oppose the measure. This is generally the reaction I've heard from European friends. Of course this goes hand in hand with Europeans’ general impression that food sizes in the US are obscenely large.

But judging from my Facebook feed, my American friends feel quite differently. I saw a lot of posts regarding the proposed ban and not one of them was positive. Even the most lefty New Yorkers on my friend list were enraged by the idea that the government would step in and regulate consumer choice. “People have a right to get fat if they want to,” one such lefty friend posted.

Such limits on commerce for health reasons are quite common here in Europe. They are found more on the continent than in the UK and Ireland, but they are found everywhere. Even London’s Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson wrote an op-ed in today’s Telegraph praising Bloomberg’s decision.
“This is the same Bloomberg, after all, whose smoking ban was also derided, and then imitated around the world. His action against smoking is now seen as a big step in reducing a particularly nasty addiction that had claimed the lives of millions. Across the West, we are seeing a falling away in the number of cancers contracted, a fall in the number of deaths. If we could reduce the consumption of sugary drinks, and release some children from the captivity of fatness, might that not be worth exploring?”
This from one of the most conservative voices in Europe. There is a general attitude here, for better or worse, that the government has a legitimate role in protecting people from themselves. For many Europeans (though not all), the issue is not so much about the freedom for people to make bad choices but the freedom for people to lead their lives without systematic bad choices being thrust upon them. Here in Belgium, for instance, the state believes that giving people the ‘choice’ to work on Sunday isn’t really a choice at all, because if they refuse to work they could lose their job. So the law makes it virtually impossible to work on a Sunday in Belgium.

Studies show that people will generally eat and drink what is put in front of them. There is a school of thought that says the steadily increasing portion sizes in the US are largely to blame for the obesity epidemic. The real cause is probably much more complicated. But given the damage that obesity is causing in the US, is it not the legitimate role of the state – in its social contract with citizenry - to step in and do something? Or is this the state going beyond the remit of a government and starting to act more like a parent – the so-called “nannystate”?

For many Americans, the answer is the latter. For them, the need for liberty (or a feeling of liberty) far outweighs the need for protection from private companies looking to make money off of people’s sweet teeth. Many Europeans feel differently.

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