How Gov’t Uses Crooked Research To Wage War On Food, E-Cigarettes And Alcohol

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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Government policies regulating peoples’ lifestyle choices are based on poor research and may not even improve health outcomes.

That’s according to a report by The New Zealand Initiative, which examines food taxes, policies restricting e-cigarettes and alcohol marketing.

The report calls these types of policies “lifestyle regulations,” referring to strategies designed to change the public’s behavior to conform to what politicians and public health campaigners believe is for their own good.

These policies include where people can smoke, what taxes they pay on certain products and limits on certain types of advertising. These kinds of regulations need particular scrutiny, according to the authors, because they are not focused on preventing harm to others, but protecting people from themselves.

Supporters of these policies often claim they help the poor most because this demographic suffers from the worst health outcomes. The poor are also more likely to reduce their consumption of unhealthy products in response to higher taxes.

But the New Zealand Initiative rejects this view as condescending, arguing policymakers are wrong to think they know peoples’ preferences better. The report says this approach will either make people financially poorer or force them into making decisions they otherwise wouldn’t have made.

One of the popular reasons put forward for regulating lifestyle habits is that people with unhealthy lifestyles impose a cost on everyone else through the healthcare system.

But if this argument is to be taken seriously, the report argues, then healthcare costs over the course of someone’s whole life need to be taken into account.

Often someone who leads a healthy life can end up costing the healthcare and pension system more money than a smoker or someone who’s obese, as they will have to draw on financial support for a longer period of time than someone who dies earlier. (RELATED:How Smokers, Drinkers And The Obese Could Actually Be Saving You Money)

There are canyon-sized holes and questionable methodologies of the public health research put forward to justify lifestyle regulations, according to the report.

“Common flaws in the methodologies or interpretation of studies include (but are not limited to): failing to prove causality; treating private and social costs as costs to the state; failing to compare results with a counterfactual; and overlooking other factors (confounding variables) that could have affected results,” says the report.

In the case of food taxes, the authors find that studies supporting a new tax often fail to prove they reduce obesity. Instead, they focus on proxies like whether consumption has fallen and then fail to account for people substituting with cheaper products. (RELATED: Soda Tax Hailed As Key To Cutting Obesity Has Zero Impact)

The case study of smoking points out what the authors believe is a counterproductive policy of subjecting e-cigarettes, which studies show are 95 percent safer than regular cigarettes, to even bigger regulatory burdens than tobacco.

The authors also find studies linking alcohol advertising to hazardous youth drinking don’t have a causal link between the two or fail to consider other factors.

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Guy Bentley