The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – On Mandating Healthful Consumption
The modern emphasis by the state of attempting to reduce the local incidence of the chronic non-communicable diseases, better known by their acronym CNCDs, may be based on the best of intentions, even though it might be argued that there is also some element of self-interest, given the enormous costs to the state of treating these illnesses and the massive loss of productivity occasioned by their contraction.
This initiative might also be classified as being purely of latter-day vintage. Take, for example, the current deprecation of sodas or what we call “sweet drinks”. There was a time when the consumption of these was considered almost de rigueur by most of the boys at my secondary school during the break period. In those days, in addition to the Frutee and Ju-C products, BIM manufactured a number of flavours in almost all the colours of the rainbow; red (Kola Champagne), orange, yellow (???), green (Lime Lemon), Cream Soda, Banana and Grape.
There was no talk back then of taxing the purchase of these by 50%, as has recently been suggested, or even the more realistic ten percent. And for the majority, these were consumed with the accompaniment of one variety or other of ‘cutter available from either of the onymous “Marys” who peddled their fare in the proximity of the tuck shop as it was called. The fillings ranged from ham to corned beef to cheese to bologna, and for those with a sweet tooth there were turnovers. Nowadays, such a diet is likely to be frowned on, although most of any ill effects then might probably have been eroded by the benefit of youth and a vigorous regimen during the lunch hour of either a robust game of “Bruise” or “first-hop cricket” on the path.
But that was in an era when obesity was quaintly associated with prosperity and “looking good”. Nowadays, when it is regarded rather as evidence malnutrition or a sign of impending ill health and when we are advised to monitor carefully our consumption of sugar, fat and salt and to exercise more strenuously, the issue arises as to the extent of the coercive power of the state to enforce compliance with the objectives of its national health policy.
Unlike some other jurisdictions, Barbados appears to operate on the premise that there exists a fundamental right in each individual to consume whatever might take his or her fancy at any time, and that the state has no right or power to interfere with this entitlement. This might not be a total misapprehension of the legal position. Indeed, in one jurisdiction where such a prescription had been attempted in the design of a more healthful diet and reducing obesity, the court was prepared to rule it ultra vires [beyond the powers of]the Board that had imposed it.
I refer to the failed effort some years ago of the New York City Council under Mayor Bloomberg to impose size limits on the sale of sugary drinks in the city. The court that treated the matter when the beverage industry impugned the legality of the measure considered the imposed limits to be arbitrary and capricious and held that the New York Board of Health had overreached its jurisdiction in creating an uneven enforcement both in regard to the drinks affected and to the establishments that might sell them.
Too besides, it bears remarking that public opinion was significantly against the measure- by 60-40 according to one New York Times poll. Given a likely similar division of opinion in Barbados, our governing administrations that are seemingly wont to create policy while keeping a steely eye fixed on their electoral fortunes, would understandably be loath to attempt an identical edict.
As to the vexed question whether there is a fundamental right to consume the food of one’s choice, I have been referred to a contrary opinion clearly expressed by one judge in Wisconsin, USA, that such a right does not in law exist, although I have not had the benefit of reading the reasoned judgment for this alarming proposition.
The converse might certainly be the popular perception, as Mrs Michelle Obama would have learnt much to her chagrin last week, when the Agriculture Secretary in the Trump administration announced a rollback on the school lunch standards to combat childhood obesity that the former first Lady had recently championed. These included whole grain requirements, lowered sodium content and milk options, while providing more fruits and vegetables. However, according to the Agriculture Secretary, these stipulations had conduced to the majority of children simply not eating the lunches.
The issue for us is one of those that, as the corporal punishment of children in schools and the execution of the death penalty, among others, are likely to recur periodically in the popular discourse never to be resolved. At least not so long as there remains among us a sufficiently substantive body of Luddite opinion that believes we inhabit the best of all possible worlds and that any change will be for the worse.
More over, the debate as to the moral entitlement of the state to regulate consumption is liable to be submerged in a complex discourse on the natural rights on man, the degree of entrepreneurial freedom and the ends to which taxation may be legitimately employed by the state in a free democratic society. What shall we do?