New York City’s health police are back on patrol. The Board of Health’s latest effort is a proposed requirement to outlaw cooking with artificial trans fat. After an unsuccessful effort last year to convince restaurants to change voluntarily, the board is pushing to make the change mandatory. Within 18 months, restaurants would be required to change their ingredients to reduce the amount of trans fats to less than a certain level.
“Trans fat causes heart disease. Like lead in paint, artificial trans fat in food is invisible and dangerous,” said New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden. Dr. Frieden also contends that when New York restaurant-goers order food cooked in trans fat, “a hazardous, artificial substance,” they are doing so “without their knowledge or consent.” Trans fat is unhealthy — in fact, all fried foods are unhealthy — but it’s not as poisonous as lead. And it’s foolish to think that people would order fried food with the expectation that their meal would actually be healthy.
Many factors in addition to consuming trans fats can increase the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Does the board of health plan to ban all saturated fats and to mandate more exercise? Personal consumption is a matter of personal choice, not government regulation. Moreover, eating is inherently an individual matter, not a public-health crisis. Heart disease is not communicable, and people are not exposed to environmental risk factors as unwittingly as the health board asserts. Personal eating habits, whether they contribute to heart disease or not, affect people on an individual basis and should not be misconstrued as a public-health crisis.
Dr. Frieden, the force behind New York City’s smoking ban, has a record of bringing forward nanny-state solutions to public-health “epidemics.” In 2005, he told the New York Sun that his second term as health commissioner would focus on diabetes and obesity. To combat diabetes, he mounted a push for the city to monitor people’s blood-sugar levels. Banning oil and shortening with trans fats is only the first step in his fight against obesity. The second step, requiring the 10 percent of restaurants that have standard menus (read: fast-food and other national restaurant chains) to provide caloric information to customers, is somewhat less intrusive, but it is nonetheless a part of the same disturbing trend of government trumping market forces and dictating how restaurant owners should run their business.
That’s a decision which needs to be left to restaurants and their customers. After all, forcing restaurants to provide caloric intake won’t stop the masses from eating unhealthy foods.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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