In a 1994 Boston Globe op-ed, the conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby argued against the seat belt law, saying that “letting the government take away your freedom in order to protect you from yourself is riskier—and stupider—by far” than the risk of not wearing a seat belt at all. Jacoby could easily have been talking about the current soda ban debate.
That’s because the personal freedom argument, encapsulated by the derogatory “nanny state” label, is a standard refrain in the history of public health policy. Whether it’s seat belts, cigarettes or unprotected sex, the right to do as we like even if it kills us is a seemingly sacred vestige of American life. And much like the auto and tobacco industries before it, the beverage industry has poured millions of dollars into advertising and campaign coffers to distract from the facts and protect their bottom line.
Public health policies generally follow a well-established trajectory, and the soda ban is no different: initial resistance from both industry and the people they’re designed to protect, then universal acceptance once they’re proven to work.
In the last 50 years the auto industry, for instance, has opposed nearly every major safety initiative. In 1962 General Motors testified before the New York State Legislature against a regulation requiring the installation of seat-belt moorings (not even seat belts). Then in 1984 the auto industry lobbied in favor of New York’s seat belt law, the first in the nation, in the hopes that it would stave off federal safety requirements to install air bags (it didn’t).
Today, of course, full safety measures come standard in cars, and automakers compete for the safety mantle.
Yet an affirmative mandate, much like a ban, was necessary to truly effect change. Americans didn’t actually start using seat belts until required by law. In 1981 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only 11% of drivers actually wore their seat belts, thus igniting a national movement to mandate seat belt use. Aided by threats from the Department of Transportation to withhold federal funding, 49 states passed seat belt laws, with the exception of New Hampshire.
Live free or die, indeed.
As a direct result of seat belt laws, 85 percent of Americans now buckle up. Incidentally, traffic fatalities have been slashed in half, and no one is complaining.
Similarly, Reagan’s surgeon general, the legendary C. Everett Koop, saw no conflict between his small government principles and reducing smoking. Much to the distress of the tobacco industry, Koop crusaded for the now ubiquitous “Surgeon General’s Warning” to include rotated health warnings on all tobacco products, and set the stage for future smoking bans. When Gallup first asked about a ban on public smoking in 2001, only 39 percent of Americans were in favor. As of 2011 a majority of Americans (59 percent) now support such measures, despite initial opposition from the tobacco and restaurant industries, as well as the National Smokers Alliance.
However, opponents of the soda ban not only object on civil libertarian grounds but also claim that the ban unjustly discriminates against poor people of color. Rewind to the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when the gay community rebuffed public health policies aimed at closing bathhouses and encouraging condom use, claiming gays were being unfairly targeted. However, their objections disintegrated when it became clear that gay men were disproportionately dying of AIDS and condoms could save them.
The situation is similar in regard to the obesity epidemic, with blacks (51 percent) and Hispanics (21 percent) suffering in greater proportion than their white counterparts. But arguing that the soda ban uniquely penalizes blacks is like saying that we shouldn’t close prisons because they disproportionately provide housing for black men. It misses the point. As with the AIDS epidemic and antismoking measures, the goal of the soda ban is to reach the most affected population, not to target them.
Rudolf Virchow, the father of social medicine, developed the concept of public health in the mid-19th century, stating, “If medicine is really to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. It must point out the hindrances that impede the normal social functioning of vital processes, and effect their removal.”
Guess what? That’s also the point of government—and despite lip service to the contrary, history shows that ultimately the public agrees.
Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.