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?