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Opinion

opinion | tom keane

Are bans on sugary drinks really government business?

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Cambridge’s proposed ban on sugary soft drinks — thanks for the idea, New York! — is no different from Middleborough’s ban on curse words. They both reflect the notion that — apparently unable to control our own bad urges — we need government to force us to behave.

That’s not a new idea. Despite the near-hysteria that has greeted both proposals — as if they each represent some extraordinary new extension of government power — they are really no different from what has gone on in generations past. Government has always tried to meddle in people’s lives: Prohibition, blue laws, and bans on non-marital sex are obvious examples.

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Still, we have slowly been getting rid of those proscriptions, recognizing that people should in general be able to conduct their lives the way they wish. There is, as a result, something quite jarring about the fact that the same folks who would ardently defend a woman’s right to choose an abortion would not let her choose a Coke.

The meddlers believe there are compelling reasons for their new rules. In the case of big drinks, someone’s decision to consume too much sugar leads to obesity, which in turn leads to them becoming sick. One might think that would be it: If you want to make yourself ill, you’re the one who ends up suffering. But, health insurance — and especially mandatory health care coverage — introduces a new wrinkle. Health insurance spreads costs among everyone, which means that someone else’s illness becomes a financial burden on the rest of us. Put bluntly, if I have to pay the medical bills for your obesity, shouldn’t I have some say over whether you should be allowed to get fat?

There’s a similar logic in Middleborough’s bylaw that would fine residents for using bad words. The poor town’s scourge of cussing kids certainly makes the place sound unpleasant. Why should the quality of life of a vast majority of citizens be undermined by a nasty few?

In both cases, the argument is that the interests of the community at large trump individual freedom.

One can easily imagine how far the slippery slope of this logic can go. If shared health care costs are the rationale for limiting sugar in our diets, then that same rationale can be used to regulate every other kind of food we consume (in fact, New York is now also going after large tubs of popcorn). It can be used to justify banning people from participating in all sorts of dangerous activities, from mountain climbing to riding motorcycles. Indeed, almost every decision we make, from food to lifestyle to career decisions, has some influence on our health, meaning that there is no end to the number of things we could prohibit — or even require (mandatory Pilates, anyone?).

Similarly, if bruised sensibilities justify issuing a $20 ticket for saying “$#@&,” why not also issue $20 tickets for raising one’s voice in anger? Why not require people to greet each other with a bow and a “sir” or “ma’am”? That would certainly up the level of civility.

Is there a stopping point to any of this?

In the case of Middleborough’s ban, the answer is yes. The state attorney general has put the town’s new bylaw on hold pending a review of its constitutionality. It’s hard to imagine it passing muster. The First Amendment’s prohibition on “abridging the freedom of speech” seems pretty clear.

There’s no such constitutional protection for sugary drinks, however. Government routinely regulates the stuff we consume: Raw milk is banned; additives are restricted, warning labels are required. The only real limit on these bans is political — if enough people object, they won’t happen. Last month, for instance, Massachusetts public health officials tried banning cakes and cookies at school bake sales. They got a raft of criticism and eventually Governor Deval Patrick forced them to backpedal. I suspect that New York and Cambridge officials will ultimately backpedal on their much-mocked soda bans as well.

That would be to the good, but it won’t stop there. The meddlers aren’t confined to Cambridge and Middleborough. They’re everywhere, and the urge to tell people what do is a powerful one. The defense of freedom doesn’t only occur on battlefields. Sometimes it’s fought soda can by soda can.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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