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Portion Sizes and Beyond — Government's Legal Authority to Regulate Food-Industry Practices
The importance of obesity as a public health problem has led to a number of proposed policy solutions, some of which — such as taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages — are highly controversial and have been opposed strongly by the food industry. One such measure is the proposal by the New York City Department of Health, supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to prohibit sugar-sweetened beverages from being sold in containers larger than 16 oz by restaurants, movie theaters, and mobile food vendors (venues where the health department has jurisdiction).
This action and others that affect business practices of the food industry are likely to be challenged in the courts in cases that raise an important question. Does government have the legal authority to regulate the conduct of the food industry in this way? This question of authority applies to many policies that might be considered in the future — policies regarding, for example, the placement of items in supermarkets, children's access to certain foods, and the banning of harmful products (e.g., caffeinated alcohol drinks).
Whether government belongs in this arena is a political question. Whether government has the authority to be involved is a legal matter that should be considered carefully, given what is at stake for both public health and business interests.
COMMENT: This is the first couple of paragraphs of a recent NEJM article that to give the flavor of the discussion. This is no longer an intellectual exercise. New York has banned larger sugared beverages and schools around the country are altering their vending machines and lunches. I am very interested in your views as to the advisability of these approaches in a democratic society.