Choice and Markets Are Keys to Healthy Living

April 10, 2019

Surprisingly, cigarette smoking may no longer be the deadliest vice known to man. According to a recently-published study in The Lancet examining the diets of individuals in 195 countries, poor eating and drinking choices were responsible for 11 million deaths in 2017. Poor diets killed nearly 3 million more people worldwide (as a primary cause) than smoking and accounted for more deaths than air pollution and malnutrition combined.

Never wanting to “let a crisis go to waste,” governments around the world are trying to use this news as an opportunity to propose new taxes and even more regulations. But after trying to find quick fixes to this alleged problem, governments have been shocked to learn that their citizens are…complicated. Taxes, labels, and nutritional regulations only make people’s lives more miserable without solving underlying dietary issues. As such, even if you accept the debatable conclusions from The Lancet’s recent study, instead of trying to micromanage what and how people eat, governments around the world should instead empower individuals and businesses to strive toward a healthier future.

Unfortunately, the taxpayer-funded World Health Organization (WHO) has for years seen poor dieting as an invitation to rampant government taxation and regulation. In 2016, WHO Director of Nutrition for Health and Development Dr. Francesco Branca claimed, “Taxation is one of many instruments available to promote healthier diets and should be seen as part of a package of policies aimed at altering consumers’ choices.”

The WHO argues that their advocacy of high taxes is paying off, and gives as their main example that “Mexico’s soda tax has reduced sales of sugar-sweetened beverages.” Reality, however, proves otherwise. Soda sale trends had started their fall four years prior to the tax’s introduction in 2014, meaning that unless time-travel is possible, the tax could not have been responsible.

Indeed total caloric consumption from soft drinks in Mexico has hardly budged since the introduction of the tax, as Mexicans are likely seeking out cheaper soda brands that pack the same sugary punch. And the obesity rate continues to climb in America’s neighbor to the south. The only real difference has been on the subsection of Mexico’s population that doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. Destitute Mexicans that can no longer afford soda altogether have taken to drinking heavily-polluted tap water, which has led to tens of thousands of additional gastronomical disease cases per year.

Besides, governments are hardly known for doling out the best nutritional advice. For decades, the government in the US went on a single-minded crusade against high-fat foods, leading to the demonization of eggs, cheese, and ground beef despite evidence that those foods are perfectly compatible with a healthy diet. Furthermore, a scientific consensus has recently acknowledged that previous government provided health advice was not just inaccurate but was downright damaging for public health.

Now, Americans (and everyone else) are tasked with the uphill battle of setting aside these long-held but inaccurate governmental guidelines and embracing healthy living. Tempting food marketing, long targeted by regulators as a gateway to overeating, may actually be a key to getting people to eat healthier. In a 2017 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers used words like “dynamite” and “tangy” to successfully lure study subjects toward healthy vegetable projects at a cafeteria. Descriptors and wording, not preparation, seemed to make all the difference.

But if words matter so much, then current proposals to reclassify veggie burgers as “veggie disks” likely won’t do much to lure shoppers away from processed meats. Barring the term “cauliflower rice,” as high-obesity state Arkansas recently did, is also unlikely to help matters.

Over the long-term, a blockbuster anti-obesity drug may be another key to curbing unhealthy cravings. There’s currently no drug like that on the market, but phentermine/topiramate (available in the US but banned by European regulators) is associated with moderate weight loss. Researchers are gaining increased insights as to how hormones and biological processes interact with appetite, and a wonder pill may not be far away.

But regulators across the world must accommodate medical breakthroughs, rather than stymie life-saving products in an endless sea of red tape. If European regulators won’t even approve a drug that has proven, moderate benefits in existing markets, they’re unlikely to approve even more revolutionary drugs. The FDA may be better than some of its counterparts, but US regulators are still far too risk-averse when it comes to approving promising new pharmaceuticals.

But no one approach will prove to be a panacea. As WHO’s leadership suggests, many approaches are needed to promote a healthy lifestyle. But they’re mistaken in insisting that taxation and regulation is the answer. It’ll take a thriving marketplace of ideas and innovation to make America and the rest of the world a healthier place.

Ross Marchand is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He focuses on a range of issues, ranging from health-care reform to internet regulation to Postal Service-related issues. Ross is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center MA Fellowship at George Mason University, where he received his MA in economics in 2016. He has interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, analyzing and blogging on a variety of public policy issues.
Catalyst articles by Ross Marchand