Some time ago I challenged those who don’t believe that paternalistic regulation is characterized by a slippery slope  to provide some examples of regulation that would prove them wrong. The problem I saw was that paternalism fans always deny the slippery slope exists by claiming that new regulations are just reasonable policies. But of course this is how the slippery slope works, as today’s new policies will be used to justify future policies and to make them look reasonable. After all, every new step is only a small distance from where we are currently standing, but what are we walking towards? Nobody took the challenge, but pivoting off of San Francisco’s Happy Meal ban I did makee some predictions about future likely paternaism:

Making fast food less attractive may protect parents when they happen to be near a McDonalds with their kids, but it doesn’t protect them from having McDonalds reach out to children in the first place and getting it into their heads that their food and toys are awesome. If you’re going to stop this problem, it must be at the root. One way to do this is to ban advertising of fast food targeted at children. This would probably start with children specific magazines and TV shows, but move to a general ban.

Now regulators are helping to make my predictions come true, as they attempt to place limits on advertising by food companies to children. Here is how Ad Age describes the guidelines:

…the rules would start in 2016 and only allow foods that contain no trans fat and not more than one gram of saturated fat and 13 grams of added sugar per “eating occasion” to be marketed to children. Also, the foods could not contain more than 210 milligrams of sodium per serving. The sodium restrictions would tighten by 2021. In a concession to industry, the rules do not include “naturally occurring” nutrients. Additionally, the foods must provide a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet,” including from at least one major healthy food group such as fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, eggs and beans.

The guidelines are said to be “voluntary”, but as Ad Age points out this is a little murky:

Although not binding, whatever emerges in the final report to Congress will likely be adhered to in some fashion because the rules are put forth by a quartet of agencies that have strong sway over marketers, including the FTC, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Agriculture. “Despite calling these proposals ‘voluntary,’ the government clearly is trying to place major pressure on the food, beverage and restaurant industries on what can and cannot be advertised,” the ANA said in a statement.

I would be interested in reading more about the “strong sway over marketers” that these agencies have, and exactly how the nominally voluntary guidelines would be non-voluntary in practice.  This will probably come to light, as Ad Age says that this announcement is only an “opening salvo in what will be a lengthy debate between government and industry on how to solve the growing childhood obesity crisis”.

If paternalists truly were concerned about reducing childhood obesity and not simply trying to make themselves feel good, then they should be willing to include in these regulations a sunset provision that repeals them if they don’t have a demonstratable impact on childhood obesity rates in 5 years. My guess is that paternalists wouldn’t go for this, because deep down they know this isn’t going to make much if any difference in children’s health and are really interested in banning something they find distasteful.

The slippery slope from here is pretty obvious: strictly non-voluntary guidelines that require any food packaging or advertising of must be approved by a regulatory agency and subject to standards similar to those above. But we know that advertising isn’t the only way that companies influence purchasing decisions. Why shouldn’t the color of packaging be regulated? I’m sure behaviorlists can tell us which colors children like most, and I’m sure regulators would be happy to insist on gray boxes for unhealthy foods. Children are also probably more drawn to items low on grocery shelves or in the checkout aisle, so why shouldn’t regulators determine where in a store products can be placed?

I’ll repeat my challenge to paternalists: if this isn’t evidence of the slippery slope of paternalism, then what would be?

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