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It's healthy to argue over legislating nutrition [Commentary]

In policy and in life, finding a sensible balance often proves difficult.

The debate surrounding attempts by Howard County officials to impose nutritional standards on government facilities offers food for thought on both counts. And as public policy and what we eat both inspire passions, a proposal for a small-scale change has provoked a relatively outsized argument.

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Then-County Executive Ken Ulman opened a can of worms in 2012 with an executive order restricting the types of food that could be sold at county parks and other facilities. His successor, Allan Kittleman, repealed the order upon taking office last December.

Now, County Council member Calvin Ball has introduced a bill that would effectively reinstate Ulman's policy.

Given this scenario, it would surprise no one to learn that Ulman and Ball are Democrats, and that Kittleman is a Republican with a discernible libertarian streak (as a state legislator, he generally took a standard GOP stance with regard to taxation and regulation, but went against the party line to support marriage rights for same-sex couples).

However, one might not have predicted the level of public pressure brought to bear over a local measure with negligible budget implications. Council hearings on the issue have stretched into the wee hours as activists, lobbyists, physicians and even clergy spoke their respective pieces.

In its simplest terms, the debate breaks down as follows: Advocates for imposing standards on the food vended at county facilities note with alarm the increasing prevalence in the United States of obesity and its frequent consequences, which include hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. The local government that contributes to this problem does a disservice to its residents and society at large, which, directly or indirectly, bears much of the cost. Those who oppose such measures view them as indicative of a "nanny state" mentality that encourages government overreach into matters of personal choice.

Opponents might also argue that, even if vendors and vending machines on county property sold nothing but carrot and celery sticks, it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans in the effort to eradicate obesity nationwide, or even within Howard County. People crave what they crave, and denying those cravings on government property only postpones the inevitable. Why tie the vendors' hands?

Each of us ultimately controls his or her own dietary habits, and I won't argue that local government can, by itself, improve the health of its constituents by making them eat right on public property.

On the other hand, even those of us who do watch what we eat must share in the costs incurred by those of us who don't. Emergency rooms, ambulances, physicians, physical therapists and other resources don't come cheap, and if you think patients pay for all of that, you're fooling yourself. We're all part of the insurance pool, friends, and even without Obamacare, we'd all still have some stake in the health of others.

Can government get overzealous to the point of counter-productivity when it comes to the things we put in our mouths? Certainly. Prohibition proved that.

Leading by example, however, carries a value that we too often underestimate. When Howard County extended a ban on smoking in public places to the local bars, many viewed the measure as draconian, but the predicted dire consequences for tavern owners never arrived. As a handful of local governments including Howard County led, other jurisdictions followed. Now such restrictions are commonplace, and while a minority still rue them, most of us view them as a significant step for public health, not to mention our own as patrons and employees.

Smokers, meanwhile, have gotten used to taking their habit outside. An inconvenience, yes, but one that has earned the applause of the rest of us, who no longer must be subjected to second-hand smoke in our favorite watering holes. And winter offers yet another incentive for those who haven't yet kicked tobacco to do so.

By putting itself on a diet, so to speak, the county government tells its citizens that such things matter, and that our local leaders care about our health. By itself, that's not going to change anything. I will still eat cheeseburgers when I should know better.

But it can motivate other governments and institutions to reconsider their own policies and make changes that benefit public health in small ways. It extends the national conversation about health and its intersection with the public interest.

It gives us, if you will, something to chew on.

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