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Ed cetera

Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

March 19, 2010 at 4:03 PM

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Civil Disagreement: Public Health Campaigns

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today's topic is federal, state and local health and safety efforts, from anti-smoking campaigns to seat belt laws.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: This story heralds King County's luck getting $25 million to fight obesity and tobacco use. I'm guessing, Bruce, that you're getting a bit tired of these publically-funded efforts to keep us healthy, from First Lady Michelle Obama's healthy eating and anti-obesity agenda to the Seattle City Council's ban on smoking in parks. But I believe government has a vested interest in a healthy populace. For one it makes for an employable, and thus tax-paying, population. Secondly, it is cheaper to instill heatlhy habits in people than to cover their emergency room visits and chronic illness costs.

Government funding ought to always be available for a public healthy= agenda that goes beyond community clinics, vaccines and Medicaid.

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I have a different view of the government's role in public health than you. To me, it's about disasters and epidemics--and I define "epidemics" as something that attacks you, like a bird-flu virus, and not something you do to yourself, like smoking Marlboros. I look at smoking as a choice. If you smoke for many years, probably it will shorten your life. But if you're an adult, and that's what you want to do, it's your life and your choice.

I don't buy the argument that because an activity runs up health-care costs, then the government has a right to tell us we can't do it. Why, then, don't we allow government to ban motorcycles, or forbid us from climbing mountains, or hang-gliding, or taking a vacation in Indonesia, as Barack Obama wants to do? I went to Indonesia and got malaria there. That imposed some costs on Group Health Cooperative. Should I have been forbidden to go there?

Of course they're not going to forbid traveling or mountain climbing or even smoking. But they'll take the $25.5 million in money, which the federal government had to borrow from China, and spend it on a lot of stuff that won't add up to much. According to our story, this includes "supporting corner stores in offering more healthy options," "promoting healthier foods in schools" and "promoting city planning, zoning and transportation that is pedestrian and bike friendly."

Save us from progressive panaceas. To the degree that these are good things, we don't need a federal grant to do them. Cities don't need a federal grant to change their planning and zoning work. The Seattle Schools didn't need a federal grant to replace Coke and Sprite in the high schools with fruit juice (which may have just as much sugar in it). And grocery stores will offer "healthy options" if that's what people want to buy.

The government talks about the grant by assuming it will achieve its goals. What does it mean when it says the grant will "increase levels of physical activity"? How is the federal government going to do that? It can't. What it can do is hire a public worker to draw up a "comprehensive recreation plan" that you won't read, and I won't either.

The final touch is that this $25.5 million is part of the Obama "stimulus" money. Why don't they just take the money and fling it off the top of the Smith Tower?

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