Banning Trans Fats in California

Last Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill to make California the first state to ban trans fats from all restaurants and bakeries.  This would affect about 88,000 food outlets.  Last October, he also signed a bill banning trans fats from the public schools.  It will be phased in California by 2010.

Trans fats are the partially hydrogenated oils that extend the shelf life of products, its what gives fast food that crisp and flavorful taste. Experts say just a 2 percent increase of trans fat intake can result in a 25 percent increase in the likelihood of developing coronary artery disease—a condition that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest and death.  It’s the worst kind of fat.

I, myself, won’t buy anything that has trans fat in it.  Even if it has a small ounce of it, I won’t buy it.  So what’s the philosophy behind this?  Well, I have mixed feelings about this ban.  The purpose of government is to (a) protect other people from doing harm to other people–basically making sure that people don’t infringe on other people’s rights (if you want to use rights terminology), and (b) making sure that society progresses, or at the very least, doesn’t regress.  Unfortunately, these two purposes can come into conflict.  So what about the trans fat ban?  It seems that it violates principle (a).  As long as the individual is doing it to him/herself, the government cannot intervene.  After all, if we have to look out for people’s health, why not ban smoking?  This is where it gets sticky.  Part of a corollary in part (b) is that people aren’t educated in some areas, thus the government has to look out for these people.  An example is that people need an education.  Thus, it’s law that you must go to school and become educated because it benefits society regardless if you want it or not.

It’s an interesting issue, but I found some pros and cons with this ban:


  1. Society will be healthier: Ok, so with people not consuming trans fat, perhaps our obesity problem will shrink and can become a healthier society.  Sounds like a good deal.  However, we have to admit that trans fit isn’t the only problem to obesity, overeating is definitely a major contribution.
  2. It’s cheaper in the end: How so?  A recent study in Health Affairs finds that annual medical spending in the late 1990s was about $732 higher for obese adults than for those in the healthy range, estimating that obesity’s medical costs reach about $35 to $62 billion per year in year 2007 dollars.  Also, by law, insurers providing group health plans have almost no leeway to individualize insurance rates based on differences in risk factors like obesity; thus, if an obese person (spending an extra $732 annually) joins an insurance pool covering 732 people, each member will see their insurance rate rise by $1.00 unless the employer makes another adjustment.  Obesity reduces some workers’ productivity, as it is associated with higher rates of absenteeism and disability leave.  And many studies have found that heavier women are especially likely to have less economic success and to have husbands who earn less.
  3. It seems to work in other places: Advertising regulations seem to have real potential. Shin-Yi Chou, Inas Rashad, and Michael Grossman (they are professional economists) find that a ban on fast-food restaurant ads reduces the number of overweight children and adolescents by 10% to 12%.


  1. Why not ban smoking if we’re going to be consistent? The reason for this ban is so that the citizens will become healthier.  But if we’re going to be consistent with our reasoning, then why not ban smoking as well?
  2. Couldn’t education be a better substitute? We’ve all learned as children that smoking is bad and unhealthy, but we’ve never really learned about eating healthy or these different kinds of fats in school.  I didn’t learn about them until I was in college and that was because another student told me about them.  After that, I started researching on my own.  Have a class in public education that deals with food and eating healthy.  Increase our physical education classes.  Make people more aware of what they’re eating and drinking.
  3. Doesn’t this seem to violate individual autonomy? Can’t people have a choice on what to eat?  So they learn about trans fats and proper diet, but they still eat it out of their own choice.  Why should the government have a say on what we should or shouldn’t eat?

These are the ideas I’ve thought up.  Anything else we want to add to the list?  What are the overall assessments?  Do you agree with the ban?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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5 Responses to Banning Trans Fats in California

  1. Nancy says:

    i think that your first point is the important one- “The purpose of government is to (a) protect other people from doing harm to other people”. i think the argument to be made here is that the purveyors of food with trans fats in them are doing harm to their customers.
    a problem with a lot of libertarian/idealistic governmental ideas (and i say this with deep sympathy to the ideals) is that they assume an educated public, which i think is a grave mistake.
    another idea would be to make trans fats a controlled substance, like alcohol or cigarettes. this idea is based on the theory that government exists to let people make their own choices once they are of legal age. it would be like the states that have no law requiring adults to wear seatbelts, but which require all children to be buckled.
    personally, i think the government should be free to protect us from our own stupidity within certain limits. granted, this can be a slippery slope, but i still think it is valid. ie: all persons should be required to wear seatbelts because a) there is no credible argument AGAINST wearing seatbelts and b) it costs the government money when people don’t.
    the same thing would apply to transfats- if someone could prove a good use for them, then they could become controlled substances. otherwise, there’s no good reason for them to be available.
    i would also say the same thing applies to tobacco. the only valid argument against banning cigarettes altogether is the economic argument for states that grow tobacco- in which case, i would say only pure tobacco cigarettes should be available as controlled substances, and all additives should be banned, since it is largely the additives that are harmful, or else the tobacco growing states should figure out something else to grow.

  2. Killer J says:

    Government controlled health issues are an area I’m conflicted about. To avoid being redundant, basically everything you summed up in the pro’s and con’s would be my take on it. You managed to put together some research on it, so good on you for that.
    It would make shopping for food and eating out in general a hell of a lot easier for me since I avoid trans fats (and most anything else with high fat content) like the plague. At the same time, I know you know my thoughts on Big Brother.

    If I have to make a decision, then I would say allow trans fats. I don’t like the slippery slope that potentially comes with government controlled diet. I’ve done well enough avoiding them thus far on my own.

  3. Kyle says:

    Since, 200 hundred years ago, we were eating mostly fresh, healthy foods and getting lots of exercise, I think government has been failing in “making sure that society … doesn’t regress.” It’s good that, now that we are learning about things like trans fats, we are taking action on them.

    I do think that, ideally, education would be a viable alternative to just banning these sorts of things outright, but even if an education is provided, some people are just dumb, and governments should look out for them. To me, the main difference between smoking cigarettes and eating trans fats is that you have to make a choice to smoke cigarettes. You can’t “accidentally” smoke. You can easily eat trans fats accidentally, or without even knowing anything is wrong with it.

  4. Paul says:

    Sometimes it’s easy to complicate things.

    In a sentence or less, you can say Trans fats are terrible. So why not ban them? They were originally developed to extend product life & be better for you than saturated fat. But it turned out it’s a lot worse for you.

  5. shaunmiller says:

    Nancy and Kyle. Welcome. What have you two been up to lately?

    Nancy, I do agree with you that the libertarian philosophy (which I’m somewhat sympathetic with as well) does overestimate the intelligence of people. The assumption that people are educated is not only a mistake, but it’s a bad assumption. Is this a reality of humanity, or are we just pessimists?

    It’s an interesting idea of making trans fat into a controlled substance and thereby taxing it like alcohol or tobacco. You also state that we don’t have to wear seat belts, but by law, children have to because they aren’t of legal age. I wonder if the same is for children: they can’t consume trans fat unless they reach a legal age. What age would that be, or is age arbitrary? I’ve been always skeptical of legal age, basically because I do find it arbitrary. What makes 18 or 21 a “mature” age? But I guess we need some sort of standard and age is the only way to find that criteria. Couldn’t IQ tests do as well? What about “mature” tests? (I’m not exactly sure how to measure maturity, let alone test it, but maturity has been more or less equated with being intelligent and being rational, so maybe this goes back to the IQ test.)

    You also say:

    personally, i think the government should be free to protect us from our own stupidity within certain limits. granted, this can be a slippery slope, but i still think it is valid.

    And that is my worry that Killer J has pointed out. I could lead to a slippery slope where the government is looking out to what we can or cannot eat. But before I get to him, you also make an interesting statement that the government should protect us from our own stupidity. You bring up seat belts, for example. Can the government go too far with this? Couldn’t education be the way out of this?

    Killer J:
    The slippery slope does concern me. If I had to choose however, I would applaud Gov. Schwarzenegger for signing the bill. I’ll explain more on this later. With slippery slope, I think there can be a safe way to stop it. For example, in the 1960’s interracial marriage was considered morally wrong, and it was illegal. Later on, people didn’t find anything wrong with it and the laws changed. Critics of this said that if people of different races are allowed to get married, then why not let people get married to their pets, or people who are related to each other? Obviously, that hasn’t happened, and I think it’s because we can recognize there’s a point where we can stop the slope to slip even more.

    I agree with you that even with education, people are just plain dumb. They’re lazy and don’t want to learn, or simply don’t care to learn. Well, should the government be responsible for them? Is it not their own fault for not wanting to learn valuable information? I think another fear is that if the government is going to look out for people, who’s going to be looking out for the government? Who’s going to govern the government? If the government is going to look out for people “for their own good,” this assumes that they are very wise and educated. I think we can see from the Bush Administration that they aren’t that wise or educated.
    However, I think Gov. Schwarzenegger is the perfect candidate. I can’t think of anyone better than Gov. Schwarzenegger who’s involved in politics and who’s also educated in health (he was a bodybuilder, after all). Since he knows his stuff, I think that he is doing a smart thing, so banning trans fat is a good idea.

    Paul: sure, bad things are terrible. So why not ban them? But why not ban cigarettes? Nancy does point out that it be an economic strain for those places that grows tobacco. Should we convince them or pressure them to not do that anymore? Also, the reason why there’s trans fat in, say, cookies, is because it’s cheaper form of fat, and the cookies don’t break down so much, thus people find them more delicious and people want to buy more of them.

    I see where everyone’s coming from and from a libertarian perspective, “let the market take care of itself” would be great, but this definitely assumes people are smart. I really don’t think the majority of people are that bright. So even though I’m conflicted, I lean more towards the pro side. It’s a good idea to ban them, and I think we can recognize a point where the slippery slope is getting too slippery. Banning trans fat: good. Banning all sugars: bad.

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