PUBLIC HEALTH
March 22, 2013

In Mississippi, Fat As They Want to Be

Good job Mississippi, no soda bans for you! The state with the highest obesity rate passes a law to protect its standing.

The Ides of March were not kind to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's soda bill, which would have made the sale of soda in cups larger than 16 ounces illegal in many of the city's eateries.

First it was struck down by a New York Supreme Court judge just one day before it would have taken effect. The judge called the law both arbitrary and capricious; his ruling is being appealed.

Then Mississippi, the state with the highest obesity rate, passed a law ensuring that none of the mayors in the state will ever enact any law restricting what or how much Mississippians can eat or drink. The only Mississippians who can pass such a law are in the state legislature, and that body is showing no inclination to do so at the moment. It's being called the "Anti-Bloomberg" law.

As the bill made its way through the Mississippi Legislature, lawmakers spent as much time arguing over whether or not people had the right to eat as many cheeseburgers or drink as many cokes as they wanted to as they did arguing about separation of power.

The governor signed the new law into effect on March 19, the same day as the American Heart Association highlighted a new study by the Harvard School of Public Health that estimates that as many as 180,000 deaths worldwide may be associated with sugary soft drinks.

Mississippi is already the fattest state in the nation, with 34.9% of its adults obese, according to CDC data. If Mississippians need a law to protect them from their appetites, that law will have to come from either the Mississippi State Legislature or from the federal government.

Some of what the law forbids: cities and counties cannot limit portion sizes or require calorie counts on menus or restrict the sale of food based on how it was grown, which includes genetically modified food. Ditto for laws restricting inclusion of toys in children's meals. And needless to say, there will be no restrictions on how much you can eat at the buffet or on soda size.

The soda bill has already divided New Yorkers. It has also made some strange bedfellows, with both liberals and Sarah Palin calling the bill too intrusive. The legislation in Mississippi is preemptive, designed to prevent any of its local officials from proposing a similar bill or mandating a similar law.

Is the opposition about delegation of power or is it about keeping government out of people's refrigerators and stomachs? It seems to be about both.

The New York State judge who struck down Bloomberg's law wrote that it would "not only violate the separation of powers doctrine, it would eviscerate it." And the director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association said the point of their law was to avoid having a patchwork of regulations statewide.

As the bill made its way through the Mississippi Legislature, lawmakers spent as much time arguing over whether or not people had the right to eat as many cheeseburgers or drink as many cokes as they wanted to as they did arguing about separation of power. Some feel laws designed to curb consumption are justified, because obesity raises healthcare costs for everyone, not just soda or burger lovers.

Death by Doritos is a new phenomenon, and U.S. society has not yet worked out how to deal with it. It is only recently that the average American has had the opportunity to eat and drink themselves silly. Alcohol and sweets have always had the ability to make our brains crave them, but now food science has perfected addictive junk food.

Both Bloomberg's attempt to limit the size of a single serving of soda and Mississippi's decision to prevent municipalities from passing such legislation are the opening salvos in what's likely to be a drawn out legal battle: Does the government have the right to enact laws designed to protect citizens from their appetites in the name of better health?

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