Monday, 30 April 2007

Save us from ourselves...

Frites sans gras
Originally uploaded by /mathieu.
Just finished watching an episode of The Agenda about the issue of banning trans fat, whether it is the best way to fight against unhealthy behaviour, but the debate seemed a little one-sided, and not in a particularly reasonable way either.

It started off well, with details about what trans fats are, where they're found and what has been or will be done about the problem. However, when it got into the real issue: whether banning (as is done in NYC, Denmark, and possibly soon in Toronto) is the best way to help people, the discussion seemed to go down a rather narrow and frustrating path.

Nadiim Esmail from The Fraser Institute, brought up the comparison of banning versus education as the means of reducing trans fat in the public diet. And he spoke of the issue on a seemingly much higher level than the rest of the panel. The other four immediately disagreed with him, so much so that they eventually returned to simply stating, as William Smith said, "I just disagree." No attempt to take on the issue that Nadiim brought up, that banning trans fat, deals ONLY with trans fat, that why were we choosing that particular issue when there are other closely related issues such as saturated fats as well, and that it brings us down the road of government protecting citizens from their own actions.

Several guests said that banning trans fats was a "no brainer". Certainly in the short term it is: it will certainly, as they all acclaimed, reduce trans fat usage, and improve out health. But where do you stop? If you ban trans fat because of the undeniable and immediate health benefits, then why don't we ban smoking? That would undoubtedly make everyone's health improve. It wouldn't happen because there would be a public outrage. The real answer to Nadiim's point is not that banning is simply better than education, but that education doesn't work because people don't want to think. Banning is a "no brainer" because it allows us not to have to think about what we are shoving into our mouths.

One possible better way to explain Nadiim's point is that banning trans fat would be like banning benzene in cigarettes, assuming that there is something that could replace the "great taste" of benzene in your cigs. LOL Benzene is bad for you. Removing it from cigarettes would certainly improve the health of smokers. But aren't there all sorts of other things in cigarettes that are bad? What you want is for people to stop smoking. In the trans fat example, what you want is for people to stop eating so many french fries. Taking out the trans fat in foods doesn't miraculously make fries health food! But that's what a ban on trans fat says. By pointing out one particular bad thing, you are raising it's importance, resulting in the neglect of any other bad things.

There's only two ways to effectively ban things like trans fat: all or none. Maybe a third: to somehow draw a line where you think banning should stop/start, that there must be x amount of risk to ban something. If you don't, then all government will ban are those things that the industry doesn't mind banning. Lynn Silver from New York said specifically that the restaurants had no problem with the idea of the ban. That's because it's a free advertising concept, an opportunity to reduce on of their biggest barriers to increased profit: the idea that pleasure eating is unhealthy. Well, despite the improved message that's it's ok, it's still not ok. We still all need to be better prepared to judge what we eat. We may not want to be nutritionists, but no one is responsible for what I eat (or what my children eat) except for me, regardless of any helpful ban that exists.

Read more on TVO's blog entry on the topic.

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