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Public Health and the Government and a Pump Handle

I caught the tail end of the interview with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg on “Meet the Press” this morning. He talked about the involvement of government in personal freedoms, and he made it clear that his government is not banning anything in NYC. Rather, they are making it clear to the citizenry what is good and what is bad. You can still smoke in NYC, but you can’t smoke in a way that affects other people, he explained. Likewise, the recent ban on large, sugary drinks is not a ban on drinks, per se. It is a ban on “large” drink servings. People can still drink 48oz of soda, but they’ll have to buy more of the smaller things.

Bloomberg... Bloomberg... Where have I seen that name before?

Bloomberg… Bloomberg… Where have I seen that name before?

If you know me, you know that I agree with having the government and authorities intervene when there is a health problem. There is a health problem in the United States (and even the world). Obesity is gaining ground, and we as taxpayers are paying more and more to take care of people with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure (which leads to kidney failure and other problems). So it makes sense that our elected representatives try to do something about it. And it all has to be within reason, of course.


“No fatties allowed” = Not Reasonable

People can and should be given the personal freedom to choose to eat themselves into oblivion or not exercise. I certainly don’t see the authorities coming into my house, throwing away all my sugary foods, and dragging me out of the house and into a gym by force. And I certainly don’t see the current (or even future) Supreme Court saying that it’s okay to ban any food that has not been proven to alone cause heart disease. With food, you need a collective action of too much food and little exercise to cause damage. I can eat fat-laden food all day and remain healthy if I burn it off through exercise and mix in some vegetables into the whole thing.

It's okay. He's going for a marathon right after this.

It’s okay. He’s going for a marathon after this… If he survives.

Of course, there are going to be those who are on the libertarian end of the spectrum who will disagree and have an allergic reaction to any regulation, let alone a regulation on the size of food and drink servings. You could see that reaction in Mr. Wayne LaPierre, who was the next interviewed on “Meet the Press” after Mayor Bloomberg. Mr. LaPierre made it clear that his organization, the National Rifle Association, will fight any attempts to limit guns in any way and at any level of government. Like many other pro-gun advocates, he kept mentioning that the criminals don’t follow the law. Though he didn’t say it, I almost heard him say, “So why try?”

Criminals won't stop, so why try?

Criminals won’t stop, so why try?

Mr. LaPierre also kept going back to having a comprehensive list of people with mental illness, but then he said that background checks were not reliable. That part really confused me. On the one hand, we need a background check to make sure the person buying the AK-47 is not a diagnosed psychopath. On the other, background checks don’t work because, as Mr. LaPierre mentioned, a hunter selling a gun to another hunter is not going to bother with background checks. Again, I was confused.

What is more confusing to me is how a national list of people with mental illness will work. Mr. LaPierre said that he opposed a list of gun owners because it could be hacked and used in a malicious way… But a list of people with mental illness wouldn’t? Isn’t it possible for someone to hack such a list and insert the name of someone they disliked to make their life difficult? (Their life would not be difficult if there wasn’t such a stigma on mental health, by the way.) Furthermore, if someone “snaps” after they got their semi-automatic rifle, how do we stop that person from doing something horrible with it?

Less people would die in wars if we just swung cacti instead of guns.

Less people would die in wars if we just swung cacti instead of guns.

I understand that it may seem from reading this that I dislike Mr. LaPierre. I don’t. I believe that he means well, and I appreciate his attempts to appease those who pay his salary (NRA members) and those who are worried, and rightfully so, that guns will get into the hands of people who will do horrible things with them. I overwhelmingly agree with him that criminals should not have guns. Who wouldn’t agree with that? It’s how we get there where I find myself at odds with him.

It may also seem that I wholeheartedly agree with Mayor Bloomberg’s approach to public health. I don’t agree 100% with him. Sometimes people need to make dumb choices if they are adults of sound mind. A big calorie count stamp on all sugary drinks would be a good first step, along with an intense campaign of education and encouragement to exercise. An outright ban on large, sugary drinks was a pretty big and, in my opinion, severe first step. But that’s just me.

My personal feelings aside, listening to Mayor Bloomberg and Mr. LaPierre was an interesting experience in how two opposite views on the role of government in public health can have the same aims in mind, e.g. keeping guns out of people who’d do bad things with them, all the while disagreeing on how to get there. Unfortunately, sometimes these disagreements stop anything from happening… They might even stop a pump handle from being removed. As my DrPH studies get closer to beginning in September, I can’t help but notice these debates more and more. I’m going to find myself in the middle of them pretty soon. And I’ll be advocating for pump handle removals, so to speak, while having to argue with the pump handle lobbies. (I can’t wait.)

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

3 replies

  1. I agree with most of Mayor Bloomberg’s initiatives including his strong regulations about smoking, but the banning of large sodas that contain sugar is overreaching. On this particular issue (sad to say) I’m with the Libertarians…Mayor Bloomberg has gone too far with his attempt to change New York City into a “Nanny State”.

    What’s next…border patrols to prevent cookies and other empty calorie goodies from getting past NYC’s borders?


    1. “What’s next…border patrols to prevent cookies and other empty calorie goodies from getting past NYC’s borders?”

      You know very well that that’s a slippery-slope argument and no way to have a debate. A better question would have been: “What’s next… Jail time for those serving large drinks?” See, that would have been a better direction to take the argument. Do we move from the civil side to the criminal side?

      How the heck am I supposed to refute whether or not there will be border patrols at the NYC borders?


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