Soda makers, restaurateurs and other businesses sued to block the effort by the Bloomberg-appointed health board. Ten City Council members called on the health board to scrap the rule, and a New York Times poll showed that six in 10 people opposed it in New York — a bastion of liberals who tend to tilt toward bigger government.
Bloomberg's health department has already banned artificial trans fats in restaurant meals and compelled chain eateries to post calorie counts on menus. Now he is trying to banish sugary and fatty foods from public and private hospitals, also stirring controversy.
Critics usually accuse governments that tell people what to do of running a "nanny state." It's nothing new; American history is filled with government efforts to shape personal behavior.
Among the most notable: Prohibition, which from 1920 to 1933 barred making and selling alcohol. Congress repealed the law after it became clear that banning booze didn't curb many social problems.
—Four decades ago, the federal government required states to enact laws requiring motorcycle helmets in order to get highway construction funds. Much griping ensued. The government also started requiring seatbelts in vehicles around that time. Two decades later, New York became the first state to pass a law requiring people to wear them. The hue and cry over that, too, eventually passed.
—By the 1990s, state and local governments had started to rein in public smoking. Controversy flared, but eventually largely fizzled.
—The most contentious debate between public v. private — abortion — rages on, but it's different in one fundamental way: Many contend that issue is about someone else's health, not only your own.
What does this all teach us, other than what we already know — that Americans are generally suspicious of being told what to do?
Those who would regulate more could take refuge in the fact that, for the most part, the outcry fades after a law becomes common practice.
And the regulation-wary can learn, from the obesity debate, that government can, at times, adeptly balance the instinct to control with the ability to facilitate solutions. What might that look like when applied to today's most contentious topics — to education, to energy, to the environment, to gun control?
In the public's mixed attitudes about the obesity epidemic, we find a signal to our leaders: Government can stake out effective territory when it provides individuals with what they need to make their own choices.
Whether this model works to lower obesity rates remains to be seen. Consider that 65 percent of people in the AP-NORC poll identified a major reason for the obesity problem as a straightforward one: People don't want to change. Americans have to make the personal decision to live healthier lives or they'll simply ignore the resources available.
In the end, if government goes for the nudge rather than the outright shove, and we choose poorly, the only people to blame will be ourselves. Which, conveniently, is what many Americans say they want — the ability to rise and fall on their own, without the people who represent them getting in the way.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press.
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