A (QUALIFIED) DEFENSE OF THE TRANS-FAT BAN. This probably won't help increase comity between progressives and our newly receptive libertarian brothers and sisters, but as William Saletan and Lindsay Beyerstein point out, the case for New York City's much-derided ban on trans-fats is actually very compelling. I tend to start from quite libertarian premises on such issues, and I certainly for the most part don't think that it's a legitimate role of state coercion to mandate asceticism or conformist aesthetic values. But this isn't what this ban will accomplish. There are many problems with making reducing obesity in itself a primary goal of public health (starting with the fact that, as an independent variable, being overweight has a weak impact on one's health), but in this case it has had the ironic effect of making the case for banning trans-fats look weaker than it actually is. To be clear, this ban will not cause New Yorkers to become thinner, or result in a significant reduction in the availability of fast food; rather, foods now prepared with hydrogenated oils will be perpared with equally caloric (but healthier) alternative fats. As such, the case for the ban is actually very strong, unless you're a libertarian purist. The problem with trans fats is not that they make you fat per se but that they're particularly unhealthy (because they not only increase bad cholesterol but actually reduce good cholesterol) whether they make you obese or not. The ban will eliminate a public health risk, which is the result of companies trying to save money, in a way that won't have a large impact on consumer choice. It's hard to argue that the cost-benefit analysis isn't with the city on this one.

I can still see a couple reasons to get wary. First, Saletan implies that there's a slippery slope here, that the ban on trans fats might be extended to a ban on saturated fats. I don't believe this is true, but if it is then that's where I get off the bus, for the reasons I mention earlier -- once consumer choice is severely affected, then the cost-benefit analysis swings inexorably against state coercion for me. A second argument would be that it would be better, at least as a first step, to compel restaurants to inform costumers about trans fat content and its health risks, and hope that the market will largely stamp out trans fats on its on. In most similar public health cases, using the state to create informed consumers rather than compelling certain choices is preferable, so it's a reasonable position. But given that the restrictions on consumers are so minimal and the health effects so strong, in this case I think the city is right. The impact of this ban will bear watching to see if it's worth trying elsewhere, or if less intrusive measures turn out to look better.

--Scott Lemieux

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