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On the Erosion of Personal Responsibility

In "Big Food is Copying Big Tobacco's Disinformation Tactics, How Many Will Die This Time?" Fen Montaigne writes about the similarities between how big food is denying its negative impacts on health to how big tobacco did the same.

What struck me was the section on personal responsibility. Montaigne interviews Kelly D. Brownell, researcher and author of Food Fight (and co-author of a paper about big food/big tobacco parallels). Brownell says:

People believe that personal responsibility should be the way we address problems. I don't have any quarrel with that. It's probably not a bad place to start, but when this industry behaves in a way that undermines personal responsibility, then we've got problems and that's usually a place where people feel government intervention is warranted.

So with tobacco, you had a clearly addictive substance. So, people would start when they were teenagers. Their ability to behave in a responsible way was being undermined by the marketing and of course the addictive nature of the product. So, that means government could step in and so what do we do? We pass clean air laws, we tax the heck out of cigarettes, we sue the tobacco industry. And society now accepts that as responsible behavior on the part of government because personal responsibility was being eroded.

So the question is, in food, does that same set of conditions exist and does that warrant government response? Well, everybody comes down in a different place, but there certainly are similarities, including very heavy duty marketing of these products, especially to children.

I don't want to say that personal responsibility is not important, because it certainly is. But in some cases we've decided that's not enough and then government gets involved. With tobacco, with drugs, with alcohol, with immunizations for children, with fluoride in the water, with mandatory airbags in cars, we've decided that if we're serious about these public health things, the government should be involved.

In the food arena, a great example of this would be in New York City, where the health department has banned trans fats in restaurants. So if you go to New York now, you can't get trans fats in the restaurants. Now you could try to solve that problem of people eating trans fats, and having heart disease as a consequence of it, by personal responsibility. You could say, "Okay, well, let's educate people about trans fats." But it's a pretty hard concept to understand. Restaurants would have to label them. People would have to have options within restaurants, trans fat versus no trans fat. And you see you'd have this complex, burdensome system that would never work. And so, that would be an example where personal responsibility wouldn't get the job done but government intervention would. And so, in New York City, they've decided that we can't default to personal responsibility there, we need to take action. And that would be an example of a real success story from a public health point of view.

I was once libertarian-leaning. And I think a perfect world might be more libertarian. But the reality that I have observed is that people cannot be trusted to do the right thing, particularly when the information they are being bombarded with is not accurate. Personal responsibility in this climate requires setting out to find the truth and that takes far more energy, time and commitment than sitting back and becoming the type of consumer (as in: one who consumes) our mainstream media and big corporations are molding us to be.

Personal responsibility is challenged as it's not on a level playing field with what Industry wants us to believe. But is more regulation and government involvement the answer?

Why isn't more critical thinking and more attention to what's going on in the name of the products you consume the answer?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    People often reject government intervention on the grounds that it violates freedom, choice, and liberty, which is a cost we should not pay. What they don’t take into account is how irresponsible choices violate others’ freedom to lower health insurance rates and health care costs and a clean environment, which is a cost we should not pay.

    Animal products in moderate to excessive quantities are directly linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, which cause MY health insurance and health care costs to be MUCH higher than they should. I shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s idiocy and poor health.

    Animal agriculture is the biggest polluter and waster of excessive natural resources. The single biggest step we could take to help slow global warming is to go vegan as a world. Our children and grandchildren should have to live in a collapsing or collapsed world ecosystem.

    We desperately need more critical thinking, and we also need to abolish animal agriculture for so many reasons.

    April 17, 2009
  2. Regulation to the extent that the government should require information to be accurate, to have nutritional information available at restaurants and delis, and to provide healthy nutritious meals in government funded institutions (schools, etc) should be necessary. However, this does not mean that people will eat healthier. We can educate people on their dietary choices, but that does not necessarily mean that those people care to eat those healthier foods. Education is important, and the more people begin to realize that what they put into their bodies is important the more care they will take.

    April 17, 2009
  3. Abby #

    Off topic, but I was wondering if you have any advice for those of us who are highly emotionally sensitive and also interested in animal welfare issues? I get so sad when I hear about the mistreatment of animals that it really affects me, but at the same time I want to be able to create change in the world. How do you deal with this and diffuse the anger and sadness that you must feel? Can you please share your spiritual beliefs or coping mechanisms? Thanks so much.

    April 17, 2009
  4. Yes Mary… I too would appreciate it if you shared your coping mechanisms.

    April 18, 2009
  5. philip #


    Information? Regulation?
    Humans do need both. Yet history shows that human beliefs without evidence will triumph… especially over the other animals. Consider, that nearly 80% of American humans think (believe) Jesus is coming down from the sky soon and with his magic powers is going to rid the world of all evil. Then you begin to realize we have a big problem here with the notion of clear and critical thinking. It's a huge uphill struggle! I tell ya. Have you ever been to a libertarian rally???…They are almost as insane, ludicrious and lacking of any real critical thinking as you might find at a conservative Christian get together.. think Sarah Palin rally.

    It's rough out there.

    April 18, 2009
  6. walkabout #

    At least half of Brownell's examples work against him. I'm not a libertarian either, but I think (along with many vegans) that we really should have the right to opt-out of vaccinations, to drink water untainted by flouride, and to use our brains as we see fit, and that government regulation of these areas is a misuse of power.

    What might help are economic incentives for vegan diets and veganic farming. Say, health insurance cuts for the former and government subsidization of the latter.

    May 20, 2009

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