Is Choosing an Unhealthy Lifestyle a Human Right?

The proposed ban on oversized soda drinks could be a boon to public health. Photo: Amanda Shepherd
The proposed ban on oversized soda drinks could be a boon to public health. Photo: Amanda Shepherd

By Indu Bhushan

The debate over a proposed ban on oversized soda drinks triggers a broader discussion on obesity and public health.

Recently, the New York Supreme Court overturned the city’s proposal to ban oversized soda drinks, terming it “arbitrary and capricious.” This was seen as an unwarranted infringement on people’s choices and lifestyle. Please note that New York City’s proposal — championed by its visionary mayor Mr. Michael Bloomberg — did not altogether ban drinking soda, but only made it slightly more inconvenient to imbibe it in large quantities. After all, people with unquenchable thirst could always buy two (or even more) smaller drinks! 

The question is whether the state has any role in discouraging people from leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

The question is whether the state has any role in discouraging people from leading an unhealthy lifestyle. 

The opposition to this proposal came from people who saw it as the state’s undue infringement on people’s freedom. Most societies recognize that the state can restrict people’s freedom only if their behavior adversely affects others. Remember, curbs on smoking took hold only after research about second-hand smoking became difficult to ignore. Causing harm to yourself is not sufficient reason. 

Now consider these facts: Two out of three adults and one out of three children in the United States are overweight or obese. Rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. The research has clearly demonstrated that: 

  • Sugary drinks’ portion sizes have risen dramatically over the past 40 years, and both children and adults are drinking more soft drinks that ever. 
  • Cutting back on sugary drinks can help people control their weight. 
  • Sugary drinks increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and gout. 

On top of this, obesity also has a strong link with poverty, making it a social justice issue. Research published by Mayor Bloomberg shows a strong relationship between obesity, intake of sugary drinks and poverty. In poorer areas such as the Bronx and Bedford Stuyvesant, obesity and poverty are high, while in richer districts like the Upper East Side and Greenwich Village, both are low. 

Let us also consider the following issues: 

  • Can we expect the state to take on the role of looking out for citizens’ welfare and providing for universal health care without also having a “nanny” role? Just ensure our health care but do not ask us to lead a healthy lifestyle! After all, health care costs affect the entire society. The US spends an estimated $190 billion a year treating obesity-related health conditions alone. 
  • Should children also be given the “freedom” to follow unhealthy lifestyles? We do not allow them to consume alcohol to protect them from its harmful effects. Are sugary drinks so different? What kinds of role-models do we want to create? 
  • No country legally allows committing suicide and only a handful allows euthanasia. Therefore, if freedom of choice is taken to an extreme, should committing suicide also be legal, since it does not directly harm anyone else? 
  • Should addictive behaviors that adversely impact health not be curbed? Most countries have laws against drug abuse, even though it does not harm others. 

The answers to these rhetorical questions are obvious. The opposition to Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal is not reasonable. My guess is that powerful commercial interests blocked this initiative, fearing a snowball effect all over the US and probably, globe. 

The fight against public smoking was also not easy and also thwarted for years by corporate lobbyists. In this case, Mayor Bloomberg is merely ahead of his time. The US legal system will see reason sooner or later, as the research around consumption of soda and obesity is too compelling to ignore. I hope sooner than later.