06/14/2012 12:11 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Regulating Obesity

Many people responded indignantly to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed anti-obesity ban on large size sugary drinks. They contended that the government had no business interfering with personal choice in individual diets, even when such choice resulted in poor health. They were wrong.

It is the government's business when individuals' poor dietary habits lead to serious obesity-related diseases requiring expensive care that raises the cost of everybody else's health insurance. (Estimates are that the bill for treating obesity-related illnesses amounts to more than $190 billion annually, roughly 20 percent of the nation's total medical costs.) Under such circumstances, the government has a regulatory obligation to maintain a balance between individual freedom and the best interests of society as a whole. Why should non-obese Americans be penalized for the overindulgence of those who would eat themselves into an early grave?

Unfair as it may be, the general public's subsidizing the excessively overweight population's runaway medical expenses continues to take place against a backdrop of ever-increasing obesity. Extreme corpulence already afflicts more than one-third of all Americans. According to a Rand Corporation study, this present obesity epidemic with its raft of associated diseases (e.g. diabetes, stroke, heart problems, etc.) adds at least $150 a year to the average American's health insurance bill. Even more ominously, it is projected that if the national trend towards obesity continues unabated, the average American adult will be paying $820 more in annual health insurance premiums by 2018 to help cover the costs of the exploding medical burden.

Because being informed is hardly a guarantee of voluntary discipline at mealtime, government has to be more proactive than simply providing information about the benefits of proper diet and the dangers of a poor one. Out of respect for the Bill of Rights, the ideal course is not to mandate a total ban on food products linked to obesity. Instead, the public should be incentivized through regulation that encourages behavioral change. Make the products less convenient to consume, thereby enhancing the attraction of healthier alternatives. Incentives could take the form of restrictions on size, content, or availability of foods most implicated in one putting on excessive weight. Imposing a tax on the foods that are the greatest offenders would serve not only as a disincentive; for individuals who were not deterred, the levy at least in theory would compel them to help finance the extra medical care generated by their own self-inflicted plight.

So lay off Mayor Bloomberg. He was on the right track.