Monday, November 11, 2013

If Only It Were a Fat Chance the FDA Were Going to Ban Trans Fats

I'm simply amazed at just how interventionist the government can be. The government regulates so many aspects of our lives, including our walletshealth care, retirement funds, the energy sector, and the definition of marriage.  The government even mandates the number of gallons per flush for a toilet! One of the government's latest crusades is against trans fats. Last Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it is essentially banning artificial trans fats, which are found in foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The World Health Organization points out that trans fats are risky to consume, but it still makes me wonder whether the government should step in and ban trans fats.

One of the primary arguments for banning trans fats is that it promotes a positive externality, i.e., improved public health. Trans fats cause increased incidence of cardiovascular diseases. That being the case, I have to wonder just how much trans fats are a leading cause of cardiovascular disease if only 13,000-27,000 deaths (CDC estimate) out of an estimated 597,689 deaths caused by cardiovascular disease would be prevented. This is not to downplay death, but to point out that in the grand scheme of things, 2.2-4.5% of cardiovascular-related deaths is relatively small, especially given the hype behind trans fats. Even assuming that the 13,000-27,000 deaths per annum merit a trans fat ban, there are still some issues with the ban itself. The first is that the FDA does not know how it will distinguish between artificial and natural trans fats (e.g., beef has 8g per lb.). Attempting to legally differentiate between the two will be a regulatory nightmare. Let's say that the FDA somehow manages to succeed in that endeavor. There is still the issue of the substitution effect, which is to say that food producers will substitute artificial trans fats for another type of fat. Even if one is to use fat substitutes, which is comparable to using tofu products to replace actual meat products, not only are fat substitutes in their infancy, but they are an imperfect substitute. What will most likely take place is that saturated fats will be substituted for trans fats. Supposing that saturated fats are slightly less dangerous, the issue is not trans fats per se, but rather an issue with overconsumption of high-fat foods. If the FDA is going to fight this battle properly, it would need to declare war on all fats, not just trans fats. To go a step further, the government should just regulate anything that is unhealthy (more on that later).    

The second argument for a trans fat ban is an economic one. If we ban trans fats, we reduce the amount of dollars spent on health care to [attempt to] cure cardiovascular diseases caused by trans fats. Determining health care benefits from the ban has a similar flaw to cigarette smoking. Those who have cardiovascular diseases usually die earlier. If one is allowed to live longer because they avoided the risk that comes with trans fats, one acquires more health care bills in their old age, thereby making it more difficult to measure the net economic effects of the ban. And none of this gets into the issue of how the ban sticks it to smaller businesses [because enforcing and complying with bans costs money], how trans fats increase shelf life of food, or how such legislation typically has exemptions that complicate its implementation.

There is a disquietude with with a trans fat ban because I feel a certain anxiety that the government is going to ban more and more food. One can argue that my worries are based on a slippery slope argument, which would only be a logical fallacy if there is no evidence to suggest that a trans fat ban would lead to more and more government intervention with regards to what we eat. Let's start with how the FDA has a well-established track record of regulating food. The FDA is also currently investigating the effects of caffeine. A ban on trans fats could set a precedent on a caffeine ban. As further studies find more health effects of certain foods, there will be more pushes for more bans, as can be observed with the attempted soda ban in New York City. Health advocates will continue to push for more regulations over time because it is a popular form of political advocacy. What I am trying to illustrate in this paragraph is that the basis for a slippery slope argument is substantiated by various trends.

Aside from slippery slope with the trans fat ban, there is an issue of dietary freedom. Much like freedom of religion or freedom of speech, we have the right to eat what we want. The government has no right to restrict what citizens choose to eat. Furthermore, food can important cultural, religious, ethnical, or sociological significance, which enhances the freedom of what one eats. Especially since trans fats don't really have addictive qualities, there is no reason why citizens should not be given the freedom to make whichever dietary decisions they desire.

The average American consumes 1.6 grams of trans fats (0.6% of calories) per day (the FDA puts it at about 1.0g per day), which is below the amount recommended of 2.0g by the American Heart Association. The issue here is not consumption, but overconsumption of trans fats. The same can be said for saturated fats, sodium, and sugar. If the government is so worried about public health, they should regulate sodium, sugar, and other fats. The problem is that there is a push for that extensive level of intervention.

There has already been progress made in way of trans fats: a) the government already requires trans fats to be part of the food label since 2006, b) there has been increased awareness of the dangers of trans fats, and c) companies have voluntarily substituted their foods with alternatives. Given this progress, individuals have the information to make informed decisions about their health. Much like anything else in life, what we eat comes with risks, and each individual should be allowed to assess what the tradeoff between eating tastier food and higher risk of cardiovascular issues in the future. Rather than treat American citizens like ignorant children, the FDA should rescind the ban and allow people the freedom to choose what foods they eat.

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