Recurring Decimals…..

Everything here is irrelevant

Chewing on trans-fat

with 10 comments

[UPDATED]

The recent decision by New York City’s Board of Health to ban the usage of trans-fat in all restaurants (and catering units) in the city bothers me. Ever since I heard about the initial proposal few months ago, I have not been able to decide whether it is a good or bad idea. 

On one hand, the ban is a classic example of the government poking its nose in matters that should be left to individual choice. It sets you on a slippery slope of nanny-statism and is arguably just a step away from enforcing daily compulsory jogging. On the other hand, since trans-fat does increase the risk of heart-attack and other medical conditions, there is the question of a burden on the public health system (leaving aside the libertarian argument that the state has no business being involved in health-care at all). Even if you have private medical insurance, your falling sick probably raises the overall premium for the population. Besides, you are taking up the time of doctors and nurses who could be treating other patients. 

Two similar examples in this context is the ban on smoking in public places and the mandatory usage of helmets while motorcycling. The ban on smoking is less ambiguous in the sense that one individual’s habit should not affect the health of another directly. In case of helmets, one can argue that chances of a fatal injury requiring intensive medical care is much more probable than the possibility of say an heart attack due to consumption of trans-fat. In both these cases I am in favor of state intervention.

Coming back to the ban on trans-fat, Professor Richard Posner, of the Becker-Posner Blog, performs a crude cost-benefit analysis and in conclusion says  (H/T: Confused):

My cost-benefit analysis is, necessarily, highly tentative. However, it inclines me to a sympathetic view of the trans-fats ban. I anticipate strong opposition from libertarians.

Do read the full post – this is a surprising endorsement from an usually libertarian voice.

Still, one wonders how much purpose the ban will serve. Folks who are diet- and health-conscious (and therefore at low-risks for diseases) already avoid trans-fat as much as possible. And such people are usually of an economic status to be able to make the choice of eating healthy. Those who live sedentary life-styles are at a higher risk for diseases anyway – trans-fat or not. For the urban poor and inner-city population, such a ban will also raise the cost of eating. Besides, one remains free to cook with trans-fat at home.

My personal preference would be to not ban trans-fat altogether, but rather force restaurants using the oils to prominently declare as such. Leave it to the consumer to make the healthy choice.

(Thanks to Confused for inputs and discussion that lead to this post. Stay tuned for his own take which is due to come out soon).

UPDATE: Confused has a post on helmet/seatbelt regulations and safety. It is somewhat related to this discussion as far as individual freedom versus public safety is concerned. He makes a good point regarding mandatory helmet/seatbelt usage:

The trick here is to couple the use of helmets with other public policy initiatives. For example, clearly demarcated road space for bikers or education for car owners that bikers have as much right to be on roads as they have- a fact which sadly enough car owners in India don’t realize. Similarly, seat belts are more useful when heavy penalties are given for other traffic law violations-over speeding or drunken driving. Another very important aspect is proper education: seat-belts/helmets save lives but not in every case!

This was implied but not clearly stated in my post. Simply banning trans-fat might not reduce the risk of all heart diseases – one needs public education too regarding other healthy practices.

Anyway, after reading the comments from Brian, I have to say I am more convinced by the pro-ban arguements – but I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling that somewhere along the line there needs to be more personal responsibility.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 19, 2006 at 2:37 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Nah, you are wrong. Trans-fats are artificial food products with absolutely no benefit to the consumer. It was a case of good intentions gone wrong to invent them anyway, so there is no need to keep them around.

    Brian

    December 20, 2006 at 11:52 am

  2. Biran: Beyond the question of whether they are beneficial or not – the issue is whether there should be a law (and hence subsequent enforcement efforts) to ban them.

    Some people say the trans-fat tastes better (?) and perhaps they would want it around.

    BongoP'o'ndit

    December 20, 2006 at 12:09 pm

  3. I kind of went with the quick comment earlier since I wanted to go do some work.

    Considering Trans-fats:

    -are totally artificial
    -have well documented detrimental health effects
    -have no benefits to the consumer, only to the producers ( I don’t believe your line about “some people” thinking they taste better)
    -may result in monetary savings (I didn’t actually read the linked article above)

    – the only reason not to ban them is if one thinks that government shouldn’t regulate anything, in which case we probably have fundamentally different world-views.

    “In case of helmets, one can argue that chances of a fatal injury requiring intensive medical care is much more probable than the possibility of say an heart attack due to consumption of trans-fat.”

    I’m too lazy to dig any deeper, but the death rate for heart disease is seven times that for all accidents, so the total dollar cost of allowing trans fats would almost certainly be higher than allowing people to ride without helmets, even if the individual risk is not.

    Brian

    December 20, 2006 at 2:23 pm

  4. Brian: Some of the reasons you provide are precisely why I am on the fence on this.
    Eventually it does come to world-views – I am in favor of more personal responsibility – but perhaps I need to wake up to the fact that most people are dumb-asses ?

    Btw, ‘work’ ????????

    BongoP'o'ndit

    December 20, 2006 at 2:40 pm

  5. Well, it was only a little work. Is that OK?

    I totally agree that people need to take more personal responsibility, particularly in health/fitness.However, in the case of trans fats, there are no personal benefits, so they may as well be banned.

    For stuff like junk food and soft drinks, a similar level of taxation to alcohol or tobacco (well, in states besides NC) would do wonders for public health, since lower risk of dying from diabetes or heart disease is not enough incentive to motivate the dumbasses.

    Brian

    December 20, 2006 at 4:11 pm

  6. Well, it was only a little work. Is that OK?

    Heh…. alright – I won’t infringe upon your right to do little work. 🙂

    The point that still bothers me (and perhaps I am being too anal about it) is that if today trans-fat (something that provides no benefits) is banned – aren’t we on a really slippery slope to far worse regulations ?
    What’s there to stop someone arguing tomorrow that alcohol offers no benefit and hence (the horror !!!) ban it (well its been done already with little success and I doubt if anyone will boot-legged transfat operations after the ban).

    BongoP'o'ndit

    December 20, 2006 at 4:30 pm

  7. […] BongoP’o’ndit comments […]

  8. […] BongoP’o’ndit comments It sets you on a slippery slope of nanny-statism and is arguably just a step away from enforcing daily compulsory jogging. […]

  9. […] comments It sets you on a slippery slope of nanny-statism and is arguably just a step away from enforcing […]

  10. […] comments It sets you on a slippery slope of nanny-statism and is arguably just a step away from enforcing […]


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