Code Red: Two Economists Examine the U.S. Healthcare System

May 8, 2010

The Health Police

Filed under: Budget,Health spending — David Dranove and Craig Garthwaite (from Oct 11, 2013) @ 5:38 pm

The federal government wants to limit salt content of prepared foods. States want to cut sugar out of school lunches. Santa Clara County wants to take toys out of Happy Meals as a first step towards doing away with them altogether. Taking care of your family’s health used to be your own business but not anymore. But all of a sudden, your elected officials have taken a keen interest in your health.

The reason for this is very simple. Now that Medicare and Medicaid are on the verge of paying 60 percent or more of our nation’s health care bills, and with no foreseeable way to meet these obligations, big government has a financial interest in your health. Your low salt broccoli soup with tofu salad (no dressing) and black coffee will help save Medicaid and Medicare from bankruptcy.

This is an easy sell among progressive legislators. Thanks to their benevolence, you will live a longer (if somewhat less enjoyable) life and they can avoid raising your taxes (or, more likely, raise your taxes and spend the money on something else besides healthcare.) Who could oppose that? In the spirit of the saving Medicare and Medicaid, here are some additional laws to consider:

– No bacon. Period. Not even the stuff at Whole Foods that comes from happy pigs.
– Baseball stadiums must stop selling nachos and cheese after the sixth inning.
– Any individual with a family history of heart disease must complete at least one marathon or one triathlon annually.
– Anyone with a family history of cancer must move to Canada.
– Your income will be taxed at a rate equal to your body mass index.

And one that I am especially looking forward to:

– Everyone must consume at least two ounces of dark chocolate daily. A glass of red wine is optional.

All kidding aside, the war on bad health habits is real. The assault on tobacco ads was the first early shot across the bow. As the Medicare/Medicaid crisis deepens, I predict we’ll see big taxes on fast foods and snacks, restrictions on food advertisements directed towards children, and all sorts of tax breaks for “healthy living,” including health club memberships and treadmills.

There are alternatives. Providing information can help individuals figure out to take care of their health without limiting options or picking government favorites. The mandatory posting of the nutritional content of restaurant meals in New York City is good example. But the health police are not content to create informed consumers. We might not use the information as they see fit.

Maybe our legislators are doing this out of some perverse kind of parental instinct. But most of us learn that to be a good parent you have to trust your children to make good choices. Otherwise your children will surely rebel. I guess our legislators haven’t learned this lesson. I hope it doesn’t take too much parenting from the health police before all of us rebel.

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