Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once famously said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. This quote, though thousands of years old, is still applicable to modern day living and eating today. It underscores the importance of healthy eating, and how a diet with nutritional value can maintain good health and disease prevention. Hence, it is not surprising to see how some governments go to great – or even extreme – lengths to regulate or control what an individual eats or drinks at times, particularly when a healthy, productive population is part of long-term government goals. While not every country resorts to restrictive policies and may opt for friendly campaigns to encourage lifestyle changes instead, nonetheless, there has been rising displeasure and even opposition towards these supposed ‘nanny state’ regulations. Some argue that what an individual eats or drinks is a deeply personal affair, and that limited government funds should be better utilised for other more pressing concerns of the state. While individual rights and choices should be respected, I believe that the state has a role to play in ensuring the health of its citizens in the long run and where consumption choices contribute significantly to the attainment of these goals. Therefore, I largely agree that what an individual eats or drinks should be the concern of the state, and the extent of its concern should be premised on the severity of health woes affecting the citizens, particularly when other pertinent issues such as lack of awareness or misinformation about consumption choices come into play.
An oft-cited argument of why the state should not be concerned with what an individual eats or drinks is because citizens should be entitled to live as they deem fit, especially in their personal lives. Arguably, governments in free societies should not intervene in the most basic and private aspects of citizens’ lives. While these paternalistic state approaches prioritise the public interest and welfare, and bring social benefits to the populace such as the ability to enjoy optimal lifestyles and health in the long run, the public of some states have opposed these stifling and restrictive policies. Notably, there was a public backlash when New York City introduced labelling of high sodium, or “excessively salty” food, in 2015. The National Restaurant Association challenged the city approach of requiring restaurant chains with more than 15 locations nationwide to label any food with over 2,300 milligrams of sodium- equivalent to around a teaspoon of salt and is the recommended daily limit in the US. The National Restaurant Association, representing more than 3,000 restaurants that came under the regulation, sued New York City claiming that regulation was “arbitrary and capricious”. These state concerns over consumption choices have manifested in education institutions too besides the food and beverage landscape, further underscoring the state’s directive in encouraging healthy eating habits from a young age. A high school in Utah was fined $15,000 for operating a vending machine that dispensed soda during lunch hour. A North Carolina government inspector also confiscated a child’s lunch of “turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice” on the grounds that it was insufficiently healthy. These “nanny state” regulations were further evidenced when Massachusetts health officials almost banned school bake sales until public outcry forced them to reverse their decision. In India, there have also been rising concerns that the state has worryingly evolved to become a “nanny state” and that personal liberties were oppressed. Alarmed by rising rates of obesity and diabetes, the state plans to frame draft rules requiring manufacturers to display the fat, sugar and salt content of products on packaging, as well as introduce a nation-wide “fat tax” to tackle these health problems. Instead, citizens often argue that the state should respect the voluntary choices made by citizens since it is their diets, and they should have the autonomy to decide how they want to lead their lives. Even some may prioritise the quality of life over quantity of years lived by choosing to indulge in their favourite food and drinks wholeheartedly without health concerns of painstakingly counting the calories or monitoring the sodium levels, opting a ‘YOLO’ (‘you only live once’) mindset instead. Therefore, it does seem that the state should not be concerned with what an individual eats or drinks as it has seemingly breached the implicit agreement between the state and the citizens which is to protect the cherished personal rights and liberties, and respect the boundaries and space that should be accorded to citizens- especially in many democratic societies today.
Rather than micromanage citizens, it is also claimed that the state should arguably not be concerned with what citizens eat or drink too as resources can be better diverted to other more pressing areas particularly when these resources are limited and these decisions incur significant trade-offs. Ironically, as governments seek to reduce social costs and spending on health problems such as obesity, the financial savings reaped may not necessarily offset the costs incurred when government intervention in healthy eating can incur significant spending too. In Ireland, a study aimed to conduct a cost-analysis of workplace nutrition education and environmental dietary modification interventions. Cost data were obtained from a workplace dietary intervention trial, the Food Choice at Work Study, and it was reported that the nutrition education intervention reported total costs of €28,529, and total costs for the environmental dietary modification intervention were €3,689. Particularly, it has been argued that encouraging healthy eating implies increased accessibility to nutritious yet affordable food. However, this is an acute challenge for states plagued with food insecurity, such as those in Africa. The entire idea of managing what an individual eats or drinks seems inconceivable when people cannot even afford basic food and commodities, not to mention purchasing food of high nutritional value. Data from Safefood, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland and Food Standards Agency shows that for low-income families in Northern Ireland to afford a healthy food basket, they have to spend up to 46% of their weekly income. This effectively prices the poor in society out of access to good nutrition, and the biggest barriers are often the most fundamental issues of unemployment, low income and rising cost of living. These issues should arguably be tackled by the state with utmost priority rather than managing food choices when other more pertinent issues come into play. Hence, managing what an individual eats or drinks may arguably be trivial or at least of reduced importance in the grand scheme of things for the state to tackle.
Yet, while it may be true that the state should not be concerned with these consumption choices, it can also be argued that they are no less critical to other state goals as they contribute to the long-term betterment of society with a healthy, productive population. In this case, the long-term social benefits may outweigh the short-term costs of encouraging healthy eating, reducing the strain on the healthcare system and minimising the need to increase taxes in the future. In fact, Dolly Theis, a Conservative candidate in the United Kingdom’s general election in 2018, and a policy expert in public health, said that far from restricting freedom of choice, the government’s childhood obesity strategy, which aimed to ban the sale of fatty and sugary foods at supermarket checkouts among other things, was about increasing choice. She observed in a paper for the Bright Blue think tank that by the age of five, children in poverty are twice as likely to be obese as their least deprived peers, and by the age of 11 they are three times as likely. The childhood obesity strategy, she claimed, marked a significant shift “away from viewing childhood obesity as an issue of poor personal choice, towards understanding that our environment, socioeconomic circumstances, education and the influence of the food and drinks industry, dictate the choices we are presented with”. Sweets and fatty snacks sold at checkouts and as part of supermarket deals will be banned under new government proposals to halve childhood obesity in England by 2030. Tighter restrictions on junk food ads on TV and online are also planned, as well as mandatory calorie labelling on restaurant menus. Tackling health-related issues seems to be the among one of the top few goals of UK, particularly childhood obesity which is estimated to cost the UK economy £27bn a year, and the NHS around £5bn, in treating illnesses related to the issue, such as type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. Similarly, Norway taxes sugar and chocolates, and Switzerland and Austria ban trans fats- all aligned with long-term government goals of ensuring health and productivity since both are often interrelated. Hence, the state should arguably be concerned about individual consumption choices as they do affect the long-term interests of the state – be it social, political or economic ramifications.
Lastly, the state should be concerned with what an individual eats or drinks when misinformation or the lack of awareness about healthy consumption choices have detrimentally affected the decision-making process of citizens. Notably, advertising and digital marketing have been identified as key causes that mislead or misinform the public in making their consumption choices- particularly the impressionable young who may not be able to discern judiciously on their own. According to a new study conducted by the Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet), 8 out of 10 food and drink advertisements aimed at children in Norway violate WHO guidelines and promote unhealthy nutrition. Researchers have mapped the current digital marketing landscape of food and drinks directed at children aged 3–17 years in Norway, revealing that the majority of the products advertised were foods and beverages high in fat, salt and sugar. There is overwhelming evidence that the marketing of foods and beverages high in saturated fat, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt influences a child’s knowledge, attitudes and food preferences. It has been found that the consumption of these promoted products is associated with increased risk of overweight and obesity. Obesity in children is a risk factor for non-communicable diseases, many of which are preventable if major risk factors and behaviours are addressed during childhood. This hence justifies the need for government intervention to regulate undesirable advertising or tackle misinformation of unhealthy products. This is because it may otherwise lead to poor decisions made in consumption simply because of a lack of accurate, reliable information to make ideal choices. While the extent of ‘nanny state’ regulations should be calibrated according to the severity of misinformation which varies country to country, it can be argued that the state has the pertinent social responsibility to ensure the well-being of its populace, and be concerned about the consumption choices that citizens are making.
Overall, the state should still be concerned about what an individual eats or drinks as ultimately, consumption habits do affect the long-term welfare and interests of the state. Hence, I believe that it should not be simply dismissed as a trivial issue but rather, it should be considered judiciously to ensure that the populace has the necessary access to information as well as to nutritious, affordable products. Even seemingly simple choices of deciding what to eat or drink may not be such a straightforward decision amidst the manipulative advertising and misinformation of today.