As VT goes to press, we learn that Philadelphia has announced a ban on the sale of soft drinks in its school system, in an attempt to combat obesity. Los Angeles and New York have enacted similar prohibitions.
As we've observed before, we take some comfort from the general lack of hostility to vending per se that accompanies these moves. Generally, the rule specifies what may and may not be sold, without restricting the manner in which the approved items are delivered.
The difficulty about these rules, though, is that they are not going to solve the problem. The modern world abounds with threats and annoyances. It is the business of government to to propose laws or regulations to reduce these. In most cases, unfortunately, no one asks, "Will this or that measure really do any good?"
Sometimes they do. In general, the move toward increasing oversight of water and raw food products that gained momentum in the early 1900s has worked very well to improve public health. Reasonable people can (and do) differ over the costs and benefits of any particular proposal, but there is almost universal acceptance of the principle that a government elected by the people has not only the legitimate power, but the obligation, to guard the public against adulteration.
Too often, though a complex situation gives rise to a variety of ills, each of which can be defined as a problem, and so arouse public concern. Elected (and appointed) officials naturally are sensitive to the concerns of those to whom, at the end of the day, they are answerable, and these authorities naturally propose remedies which often seem plausible, when not examined critically. If the situation is complex enough, a great many of these can be applied without having any effect on the underlying ill.
A public that had not been trained from childhood to strive earnestly to make the world a better place, without ever being given detailed information about just what might to be making it a worse one, would study such patchwork proposals with cool, judgematical eyes and insist that the overall situation be considered. But we are not such a public.
The newspapers publicize the perceived problems, each as it provokes some statement of alarm by someone who presumably knows what he or she is talking about. The public is duly alarmed and angered; and the authorities react by doing what they're paid to do.
The issue of soft drinks and snacks in schools is a prime example. No one claims that youngsters get a substantial amount of their daily ration of these things in their schools; the highest figure we've seen, in our unscientific and random browsing, for soft drinks consumed in schools is 4% of total intake. No one doubts that the increase in obesity among toddlers is demonstrable and frightening, and these kids haven't yet seen the inside of a school. Neither does anyone doubt that more and more adults are obese, and they are well away from the temptations of the school snack bar or vending machine.
However, if you argue against a proposal to remove soft drinks, or candy bars, or potato chips from schools by reminding its advocates of those incontestable facts, they usually reply: "You may be right, but do you expect us to just stand by and do nothing?"
The correct response to that, of course, is that it's better to do nothing than to do something that gives everyone a warm glow of accomplishment, thus allowing them to turn their attention back to more interesting matters (like the Super Bowl halftime show), while in fact the deed does nothing to remedy the ill that it was supposed to cure.
We don't know why obesity in the United States (and in many other nations) is on the increase. We do think that most of the phenomena that seem to draw most of the fire, like the proliferation of food courts and opportunities to "super size" orders, are results of whatever is at work, not its causes. And we're sure that the decrease in daily occasions for physical activity plays a critical role.
We thus object to the old exhortation, "Don't just stand there - do something!" We'd prefer that everyone stand there until they have a better idea of what to do. If there's a fire in the walls, improving the ventilation of the house may improve the comfort level temporarily, but will only make matters worse.