Memo to Bloomberg: Forget Big-Gulp Bans. How about Encouraging Healthy Relationships Instead?
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's fondness for legislating what naughty foods and drinks New Yorkers can and cannot buy is wearing thin.
Last week, a small but outspoken group of Gotham residents participated in what was dubbed a "Million Big Gulp March" at City Hall Park, organized by a group called NYC Liberty HQ. The protest came a month after Bloomberg proposed a ban on selling supersized drinks in bar restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas, food carts, and delis. (It apparently took this long to get a protest permit from the city.) Supposedly, this ban would help fight obesity and save on the supersized health care costs shouldered by the city related to obesity. As if people can't just go to the market and buy a liter-sized bottle, or a 12-pack of the sugar drink of their choice.
In response to the protesters, one of whom held a sign aloft that read "Hands off my bladder," the mayor said, "If you want to kill yourself, I guess you have the right to do it. We're trying to do something about it."
Bloomberg famously -- or infamously -- began his health care crusade in 2006, when the city banned restaurants from cooking with trans fats. Not to be outdone, Taxifornia -- I mean California -- did Bloomberg one better by banning trans fats statewide in 2007. Since then, "me-too!" trans fats bans have followed in cities and counties across the country.
It's hard to muster much sympathy for trans fats, which are irredeemably bad for us. But the heftier point missed by Mayor Bloomberg and other members of the food police is that such bans lead inexorably to fatwas against other fattening substances. In an interview on June 13, Charlie Rose asked Bloomberg an obvious question: "What is it that drives you to impose this stuff on people?"
The mayor replied, "If government's purpose isn't to improve the health and longevity of its citizens, I don't know what its purpose is. We certainly have an obligation to tell them what the best science and best medicine says is in their interests."
Glad he cleared that up. Most of us thought the job of government was to protect public safety, clear the snow from the roads, and protect civil liberties. Our mistake.
But if Mayor Bloomberg really believes what he told Charlie Rose, he should start by taxing single people and atheists.
Studies have consistently shown the enormous health benefits of marriage, particularly for men. Scott Haltzman, M.D., distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and author of The Secrets of Happy Families: Eight Keys to Building a Lifetime of Connection and Contentment, conducted research showing that single men had a 250-percent-higher mortality rate than women, and that a man with heart disease lives, on average, four years longer than an unmarried man with a healthy heart. Men with cancer or who are packing twenty excess pounds have dramatically longer life expectancy rates compared to healthy but single guys. Health advantages for women are similar.
The mayor could next target atheists, because as bad as obesity is for one's health, lack of faith may be as deleterious. Reams of research have been unequivocal in revealing the health benefits of faith, including protection from illness, coping with illness, and faster recovery from it. A British-based report from 2011 by Dr. Alex Bunn and Dr. David Randall of the Christian Medical Fellowship called Health Benefits of Christian Faith reviewed more than 1,200 studies that consistently affirmed that regular churchgoers lived an average of fourteen years longer than those who did not attend services. While this report emphasized the health benefits of Christian faith, it is entirely logical that the same benefits apply to those of other community-based faiths. These benefits include a sense of well-being, hope, and optimism; lower rates of depression and suicide; less loneliness; and lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse. Might these very tangible benefits even compensate for the occasional extra-large soda at a baseball game or bucket of popcorn at the Cineplex?
Any attempt to reduce the public's collective waistline by arbitrary targeting of junk foods and drinks is doomed to fail. First, the independent spirit rebels against government diktats, even (or perhaps especially) those supposedly "for our own good." I can just imagine the folks who, just to make a point, will buy two overpriced 16-ounce sodas at the Cineplex because they miss the 20-ouncers they used to enjoy. So much for saving on empty calories.
More significantly, health is not just physical. Healthful eating and exercise are unquestionably very important, and obesity will surely damage us. But as thousands of studies and common sense show, health is enhanced in ways we cannot measure, and sometimes even miraculously, by the spiritual and emotional dimensions of our lives. The feeling of belonging, of having a purpose, of hope, of optimism, of deep personal connections, and of ultimate transcendence contributes meaningfully to our health and longevity. These intangible, spiritual elements of our health are not improved one whit by outlawing a large milkshake.
Judy Gruen is the author of several books, including the just-released Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping. Her website is www.judygruen.com.