A recent survey that polled 2,200 American adults found mixed results when it comes to current or proposed laws aimed at protecting the health and wellbeing of the public. Respondents were asked to the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with 14 such measures.
Many of the measures were supported by the majority of respondents. These included laws that require drivers to wear seatbelts, and motorcyclist and bicyclists to wear helmets. The majority also supported a ban on texting while driving and smoking in restaurants.
When it came to measures related to nutrition, respondents supported requiring restaurants to reveal the nutrition information of their foods on their menus, as well as the elimination of trans fat in restaurants.
However, a majority of respondents opposed the citing of obesity and smoking by employers as reasons for not hiring a candidate, and a tax on soda.
At first glance, these results seem a bit random. But on further observation, there appears to be a common thread of logic linking the respondents’ answers to these questions. The measures relating to road safety likely gained support because they make the road safer for everyone. Similarly, prohibiting smoking in restaurants protects the health of everyone present. The nutrition-related measures make it easier for individuals to make informed decisions. And the measures that were largely opposed likely gained little support because they infringe upon an individual’s freedom to make his or her own decisions – even if those decisions are unwise.
It seems, therefore, that respondents feel individuals should have the right to make their own decisions when it comes to their health and safety, without being penalized – unless their decisions affect others, in which case greater regulation is tolerated.
This link of thinking, however, should be taken a step further. If this poll is any indication, the majority of Americans feel that an individual’s behavior may be regulated if it has a negative impact upon the health or safety of others. Why not apply the same logic to corporations?
Perhaps we should not tax individuals for purchasing a soda, for example, because that is in individual choice that only impacts the health of the consumer making the purchase. However, it would be beneficial to prohibit corporations like Coca Cola and Pepsi from adding harmful substances like corn syrup to that soda.
The difference is, when Coca Cola and Pepsi make poor decisions in terms of public health – like choosing to use corn syrup – they profit from it. Individuals should have the right to protect their own health or not. But corporations should not be allowed to use coercive marketing practices to push their products onto the public and then profit from selling a product that negatively impacts the health of millions of people. This is the logic being demonstrated in the survey. If a decision only impacts the health or safety of the person making that decision, then that action should not be prohibited. But if a decision stands to negatively impact the health or safety of others, it should be regulated.