William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Biggest Threat To Public Health? NYC Board Of Health & Soda Pop


Imagine New Yorkers’ reactions if a new strain of influence or some other community deprivation were enslaving hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers a year and causing debilitating lack of choice — including loss of freedoms — for thousands more. The call for bold action would be overwhelming — and completely appropriate.

So begins New York City Health Commissioner and Chief Busybody Thomas Farley’s editorial announcing today that he personally will ban soda pop sold in quantities the good doctor finds obscene. I might have made errors in retyping this: for strictest accuracy, see the original.

Farley is part of a large, systemic menace: humorless bureaucrats who think they Know Better. If something isn’t done soon, this infection will pass the point where the body politic can resist. After this, the disease will be incurable. The malady won’t be fatal, but will propel its victims into a near catatonic, zombie-like state, where they are unable to come to any decision without first referring to a government rule or to somebody holding a PhD.

Luckily, I have one of these things, so I Know Better, too. And in this case, Know More than Farley, who however slick a political apparatchik he is, could not reason himself out of a paper bag. Let’s see why.

For the vast majority of his existence, man has struggled to find enough food to live. Until about a century ago, where thanks to some clever fellows, food was provided in abundance for most souls. Mankind rejoiced—and began to eat. Those who in times of scarcity and to display their wealth were once fat, in times of bountifulness and to display their superiority grew thin. And those who used to be thin, because of their love of food, grew fat.

Fat people offend the Know-Better thin people. Thin people can’t stand thinking of fat people. Thin people say it is morally wrong for people to be fat, which is why they seek power, to force fat people to eat less so that fat people can be like thin people. But thin people know that appealing to morality directly sounds thin, so they mas their puritanism in the language of science and say instead, “Being fat makes you sick.”

This is still a moral statement, because it implies being sick is not good. But never mind. Farley said:

Obesity leads to the deaths of nearly 6,000 New Yorkers a year, more than any health problem except smoking, according to our best estimates. This epidemic is not a communicable disease like influenza, but it is more dangerous and more deadly.

Farley, who knows his Orwell, knew not to say, “Obesity causes 6,000 deaths” but merely that “Obesity is weakly correlated with 6,000 deaths.” But Farley forgot that something always causes death (or perhaps like many thin people he cannot imagine dying): every dead person died of something. He also forgot that there are many more fat people than thin people. Combing Farley’s forgotten facts means that when death statistics are compiled, it must be that fatness will correlate with the maladies put down as causes of death.

Oh, and Farley also forgot that there is some evidence that fat people, though perhaps not those who suffer from gluttony or who are grossly obese, tend to live longer lives than thin people.

Nevertheless, it is also so that fat people tend to have some diseases at greater rates than thin people, like diabetes. And it is likely that if some of these fat people resisted the urge to eat and stayed thin, they could avoid these diseases. That is, they could lay aside their fudgesicles and soda pop and instead take up the New York Times or jogging and become a thin person—who will die of a different malady.

In other words, fat people can sacrifice that which makes them happy for that which makes them unhappy (i.e. the NYT). In doing this, they will still die, perhaps even sooner, but they will die as thin people, and thinness, as thin Know-More people claim, is its own reward. And when these would-be fat people die, they will still die of something, but that something might not be the same something which they would have died of had they ate as they wanted.

Farley believes fat people are stupid and cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves. This is indisputable—Farley’s opinion of himself, I mean. For Farley is set to ban soda pop in sizes larger than an arbitrary limit. By removing the freedom of choice of soda size, Farely believes he can make fat people thin. Because Farley Knows Better.

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See also this and then this.

14 Comments

  1. How is it that such a thin man has such a fat head?

  2. How is it that such a thin man has such a fat head?

    (*snicker*)
    Settles in different places in different folk.

  3. Yes, many diseases are assoiated with being fat as noted above, however, causality determinations of fat -> disease are in most cases weak at best. In fact to further confound the true nature of the relationship between these diseases and fatness, for some of them the treatment for the disease will contribute to weight gain (fatness). For example, injecting insulin for diabetics. Many people may not realize this, but insulin does not magically remove sugars from the bloodstream, it is a hormone that tells the body to remove the sugar from the bloodstream and store it AS FAT. Injecting insulin to treat diabetes will cause weight gain.

  4. The place to solve this problem, if it is a problem, is in the schools — Biology or Health classes. Of course that would require functional schools.

    Imagine the following …
    o High school, college and professional football are outlawed to prevent injuries and brain damage.
    o Alcohol is outlawed to prevent alcoholism, liver disease, drunk driving, unruly behavior and personal injuries.
    o Consensual sex is outlawed to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies.
    o “Cheating” (sex by a married person with someone other than their spouse) is outlawed to prevent unpleasantness and divorce.
    o Driving automobiles, motorcycles and bicycles is outlawed to prevent automobile related injuries.
    o Breathing is outlawed to reduce atmospheric CO2 and prevent global warming.
    o Elevators are outlawed to reduce energy consumption and promote healthy exercise.
    o Health insurance for people over 65 is outlawed to encourage healthy living and reduce the federal deficit.
    o Television is outlawed so that people will spend more time exercising, working and paying taxes.

  5. “First they came … ”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came%e2%80%a6

    “I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody, outside of a small circle of friends … ”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outside_of_a_Small_Circle_of_Friends

  6. Not that I put any faith in these type of studies … but … my favorite study is the one that concluded people who exercise X hours per day (I forget the actual value of X, though I believe it was some fraction of an hour) live longer than those who do not exercise. The funny thing is the sum of X hours of daily exercise over a lifetime is less than the hours gained from exercising. Oh the irony!

  7. The drink ban includes movie theatres. On those rare occasions I venture into a movie theatre, generally with at least one other person, sometimes we share an over-large soda as an economy measure. Will I now have to purchase two more expensive smaller pops? Where is my economic freedom?

  8. From a recent health survey in NY we know what the self-righteous mayor and his bluenose health commissioner obsess about:
    Pain relief.
    Fat people.
    Exercise.
    Pleasurable foods.
    Sex.
    Liberals have a morbid obsession with other people’s behavior, sex, race and money. Such people used to be called busybodies.

  9. Know betters: That is the correct expression, alright. Historical wide spread thinness, if there ever was such a thing, may very well have been the result of food scarcity and near starvation diets. The food abundance that we have attained has produced the variation of body weight that we see now. It is interesting that very little evidence is presented to support the claim of national weight gain, and what is presented is of very dubious quality. I have never seen the claim expressed as average weight gain in pounds per capita, probably because this number would be laughable. Instead the result, when given at all, is in percentage of the population that is obese. However such a result suffers from boundary crossing magnification, not to mention the periodic shifting of the boundary. The other thing that you never see is a numerical calculation on how it is even conceivable that one can control weight through a conscious control of the balance of caloric input and output. I have mentioned this before, but to repeat: one pound of flesh corresponds to about 3500 calories. Therefore at 10 pounds gain (or loss) a year we get about 100 calories a day, which is about 5% of a normal 2000 calorie daily diet. How can one possibly maintain such a balance by conscious control (input or output)? It is even beyond our ability to measure that accurately. Therefore the mayor is really suggesting that all of us (you!) fatties must go on starvation diets. This doesn’t sound healthy to me.

  10. Jim Fedako:
    Jim, please post a link to that study. I anticipate having much fun with it.

  11. Well I think we’ve found 1 budget cut that all parties can agree on…..

  12. I had a friend give up smoking in his thirties, only to die of liver cancer in his fifties, in his case quitting smoking was s denial of pleasure that did not pay. In my father case he did not quit smoking and he died at sixty five, all but one of his sibling are still alive, the sibling that is dead, died twenty one years after he died she was in her early eighties, I estimated that smoking cost my dad twenty years of life. Yet I will not criticize some for smoking all though I will encourage them to quit. I do understand such a choice is the person individual choice. Choices do have re-precision and when we make them we do not know how they will turn out. Yet we have people in political life whom think they do and do not hesitate to impose their values onto other, the funny part is they generally have no idea what they are proposing and to most part do great damage. I think they are unhappy people and cannot stand to see other people enjoying themselves.

  13. There’s a common assumption in these debates: that if a behavior is mandated or prohibited nearly everybody will, of course, obey the law. They don’t believe people will respond to incentives to have good health habits but will respond to a legal requirement to do so.

    I have heard that people who smoked enough dope in college don’t recall it (or, apparently, that anybody else their age had done so) but I didn’t believe that until recently…

  14. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! As a healthcare professional who spent his career working with and then researching and enumerating drug and alcohol misuse it’s an absolute delight to read such a well founded article.

    So many people who research — and provide healthcare — for these groups have a deep-seated moral stance which infects their thinking. The reaction to, and treatment of, smoking, substance misuse, obesity, teenage pregnancy, and deliberate self-harm is often punitive in a way that would be prosecuted if it were applied to, say, a black person because they were black. Noone ever discusses banning horse riding or American football because of their statistical dangerousness.

    I know you’re coming at it from an abuse of statistics standpoint and perhaps don’t share my views. However, the point of agreement between us is that science (and, in my view, medical care) should be impartial. This is even more important where science is deployed to underpin government policy because people’s lives, livelihoods and tax dollars are at stake.

    Unfortunately, the worst science seems to universally occur at the intersection with public policy. More strength to your arm as you continue to expose it.

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