Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Government Mandated Veggies

In Elena Kagan's Supreme Court hearings before the Senate's Judicial Committee, Oklahoma's Senator Tom Coburn asked whether it would be constitutionally permissible to pass a law requiring Americans to eat vegetables. Clearly a grandstanding libertarian question, but it does raise interesting questions. Given that this nation faces a severe public health crisis related to obesity which is itself in significant part a result of the normal American diet, what can the government do to help?

No, we can't mandate better eating habits, but it doesn't mean that the government is powerless either. In part, the government is responsible for our diet. We subsidize corn to the point where it is cheaper to buy than it is to grow. This means that we can cheaply produce all the processed crap that we see on the shelves of traditional grocery stores and we can feed it to cattle who grow bigger than they would on grass which is what they are supposed to eat. (It also increases exposure to e coli which is rampant because of the unnatural diet of our cattle. If an animal is put on a grass-fed diet in just the last week of its life, it reduces the amount of e coli bacteria in the animal by 90%, but doing the right thing is not something our beef industry takes too seriously.) Tax payers pay to make bad food cheaper than good food, which then causes us to have to spend more on health care. Why not cut corn subsidies and increase those on broccoli? (Hint: the first presidential caucus is in a state that rhymes with miowa.)

What else could we do as a nation to encourage better health? More sin taxes are one option. There is now, to John Boehner's sorrow, a new tax on tanning salons, something that contributes to melanoma. On the other side of the ledger, I've long thought that gym memberships and exercise equipment should be tax deductible. Belonging doesn't mean you will go and having it in the garage or basement doesn't mean you will use it, but it does make it more likely.

There is urban planning and development which could focus on making us less car dependent and make options like walking and biking more attractive.

What else is there? How could we use government to help make us more healthy instead of less?