Published October 24, 2006
Walter Willett, who is chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a strong ban advocate, claims that trans fats cause "tens of thousands of premature deaths each year."
The measure is expected to go to a vote in December.
The ban continues a growing movement for greater regulation of the food Americans eat, and arguments surrounding it may well be repeated in meetings held across the continent.
Willett has already called for the Food and Drug Administration to enact similar policies nationwide.
There is precedent for this type of national food regulation.
Denmark, for example, imposes a harsh trans fats policy nationwide; penalties include fines and up to two years in prison. It is not clear what penalties the NYC measure would impose.
What pros and cons will fill the media?
In general, the debate swings between two extremes. Advocates for the ban present evidence that trans fats clog arteries, cause death and cost billions in tax dollars in medical care each year. Civil libertarians accuse advocates of promoting a nanny state — that is, an intrusive government that dictates the minutia of how people may live under the guise of taking care of them.
The push to legally prevent individuals from having a french fry "their way" is likely to prevail…if not in New York, then elsewhere — and soon. It is too potent a mixture of dire health alerts, politics and ethical judgements. If so, it will prevail over two values that have defined the American character: personal freedom and rugged individualism.
Compared to Europe, America is relatively new to "nanny" measures. For example, the right to educate your own children (homeschooling) is illegal in many European nations like Germany, but commonplace in America.
Traditionally, the question of what you choose to eat has been discussed outside the American framework of politics and ethics. Generally speaking, American politics and ethics have not dealt with how you prepare french fries, but with how you relate to other people; do you lie, defraud, or physically harm others. Nutrition might have been a health concern and a discussion in classrooms, but it did not stir political and ethical interest within the broader society. Personal eating preferences were considered just that: personal preferences.
Society has changed in several ways.
For one thing, both public and private health care have become increasingly expensive, with both taxpayers and insurance premium payers subsidizing the so-called bad health choices of others. In consequence, the general public feels a greater right to prevent others from making bad health decisions at their expense.
Thus, if studies prove that trans fats clog arteries and cause heart disease and premature deaths, then calls for legislation often follow.
Such calls ignore several factors.
First, although trans fats may very well pose the health dangers claimed, medical studies in general are notoriously unreliable. The July 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), contained an article by Dr. John P. A. Ioannina entitled "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False." It reviewed "all original clinical research studies published in three major general clinical journals or high-impact-factor specialty journals in 1990-2003," each of which had been "cited more than 1000 times" in subsequent literature.
In short, it reviewed 'the best'. 32 percent of the studies were subsequently refuted; 44 percent could not be validated; 11 percent remained unchallenged and, so unvalidated.
Moreover, even a reliable study does not always establish causality.
An excellent and non-hysterical exposition of true death risks is provided by Bernard Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh, in his 1991 "Catalog of Risks" (large pdf). Cohen uses solid statistical definitions and methods to evaluate the probable loss of life expectancy (LLE) from various activities. He also answers such nontrivial questions as "premature by how much" and "compared to what?"
For example, the LLE from jogging is "1.7 days per year." Cohen balances that against the fact "jogging is usually viewed as a measure of preventing heart disease" which has a far higher LLE; this makes jogging beneficial overall. Trans fats are unlikely to be nutritionally beneficial, but whether using them in cooking should be outlawed is a different issue entirely.
Unfortunately, in past decades, food has become a political and ethical flash point, with voices of reason being shouted down. Accusations have taken over. If you eat meat, then you violate animal rights. Feed your child sugar and you are guilty of abuse. Buy inexpensive food from Wal-Mart and you are complicit in labor exploitation. The United Nations has suddenly switched from alarm bells about starvation to ones about obesity.
Food is the new political chic; eating is the new morality.
Unhappily, this trend is why I think trans fats bans are likely to succeed In North America.
"What's the big deal?" readers may ask. "We're only talking about a french fry."
Well, viewed from one perspective, words are only 'puffs of air,' but that doesn't diminish the importance of free speech. The idea of government micro-managing personal choice and freedom down to the level of a french fry is a very big deal.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.