Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Trans fat Terminator

Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger of California signed a bill that will ban restaurants from using trans fats. This bill comes after a strategic, decentralized campaign waged by various groups over the last few years to raise awareness about the deleterious effects of trans fats (a kind of fat found in hydrogenated oils, vegetable shortening and the like). California's ban of these damaging lipids follows the example set by New York City when in 2007 legislation passed to ban trans fats in all restaurants.

When I lamented about this new law to my little brother, he said, "But Alex, isn't this a good thing? Aren't people better off now? There are lots of people who don't know that trans fats are bad for them, so this will help them."

I admit, it is very difficult to defend opposition to a bill like this given that trans fats have been demonstrated to be quite damaging. Prohibiting their use in foodstuffs will likely lead to benefits for consumers. However, it is the implicit principle on which legislation like this is passed that is so vexing to me. Bills such as this assume that the role of government is to protect people from themselves as much as it is to protect people from each other. It confers powers onto do-goody bureaucrats that none of us would ever want to give. In this case, there is no outcry or indignation because there is nobody (at least who I know of) who defends these dangerous fats. So, legislation like the bill in California gets passed with almost no obstructions.

But one has to ask, was this bill even necessary? For the last few years, as the fact that trans fats are damaging to our health has become pretty common knowledge, consumers have been demanding trans fat-free foods. Producers, pressed to meet the demands of their customers, have willfully removed the trans fats in so many of their products, and they advertise it proudly on the packaging to attract health-conscious shoppers. This is the way the market takes care of things. Sooner or later, the makers of foodstuffs would all elect to make products without trans fats, as the early experimentation with trans fat-free production would likely lead to innovative alternatives, improved methods, and lowered costs. Firms that then resisted the move to trans-fat free products because of costs incurred would now find it profitable and feasible to offer the same trans fat-free products as their competitors. In other words, the market works dummy.

Still, what is most concerning to me is the precedent that this kind of legislation sets. If the government deems that something is harmful to you, it has the right to tax it, regulate it, and in the extreme case, ban it altogether. In the case of trans fats, no one cares. It is a victory for public health advocates and politicians, and likely, in the long run, for consumers. But what if this were something to which people are more attached? Say starbucks coffee? Imagine if some scientist publishes a study saying starbucks coffee is damaging to public health. Should the government then impose its will on us and ban it? Or, should we trust individuals to judge what is best for them, and to take their chances in light of the risks?

My concern is, where does the power to prohibit end? How could you stop the legislature from banning anything it deems dangerous? What justification would you have? What makes trans fats any different from cigarettes and alcohol besides the fact that these last two are things people actually crave, while trans fats are tasteless and unattractive? There is no difference really, and so, it's really a matter of leaving ourselves open to the whims and wishes of our politicians.

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