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A Junk Food Vending Machine Ban Is A Bad Idea

Photo by pollyann

If we're speaking in generalities, I'm a fan of the so-called "nanny state."

For the most part, we can't be trusted to always do what's in our best interest. If we could, there'd be no age requirement for buying alcohol, speed limits would be outlawed, and every kind of illegal drug would be available at the corner store for whatever price the market dictated. But this isn't the reality because we do need protection from ourselves now and then. And that extends to the area of food.

Now, this isn't to say we're all idiots and need to be told what to eat. We just need a little leveling of the playing field. Big Food corporations have spent massive amounts of money, and will spend massive amounts more, hiring food engineers to jam pack as much sugar and salt into their junk foods and sodas, making them more and more addictive in the process. On top of that, we're bombarded with such a constant barrage of advertising that it's almost impossible not to buy cheap junk food while we're rushing our way through the grocery store. To counter this onslaught from corporations spending millions of dollars to get us to spend billions more, it's in our best interest to have a government willing to regulate every so often, to have our back, to stick a few extra barriers between us and them, to give us all a fighting chance.

That said: There's a new bill winding its way through the California legislature that I worry may be trying to hold our hand a little too much.

The proposed bill, AB 459, calls for the removal of junk food from California-owned vending machines, meaning any machine on state-run premises. If passed, the ban would force vending machines to be 50% full of items that meet their "nutritional guidelines" by 2015, before upping that percentage to 75% in 2016 and a full-blown 100% by 2017. That means that if this bill gets passed, in 2017 you will not be able to buy a bag of Doritos or a can of Coke from a vending machine sitting on state property. Instead, your options will be "water, milk with 2% fat or less, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, snacks with fewer than 200 calories and 230 milligrams of sodium per serving." What fun.

(And to those who don't think this affects them because they don't work or visit government-run properties all that often, keep in mind this could be one of those "first shot across the bow" bills. If this passes by a wide margin, and people don't revolt, get ready for similar bills down the line that extend a bit further.)

The bill, written by Assembly member Holly Mitchell, certainly has good intentions. Junk food is bad, so why would we want government dollars being spent to allow people easier access it? And as she makes clear in an email to the L.A. Times, she's not saying government workers shouldn't be allowed to eat what they want:

"Everyone remains free to purchase off-site and bring on-site whatever they want to consume."

It's just that, as Mitchell puts it, "the state will stop providing profiteers venues" to sell junk food. But my main problem with the bill is that despite the assurances that government workers can still consume whatever junk they want, it's creeping into the realm of taking away choice.

Take the failed soda ban in New York City which would've capped the size of a sugary beverage at 16 ounces a cup. Now, this was an idea I could get behind, because it wasn't really taking away a person's a choice to consume more than 16 ounces of soda. It was just putting up a small barrier. If a person wanted, they could still choose to drink 64 ounces of soda. It's just that, now, instead of having it all in one easily-accessible Big Gulp, they'd have to go back and get three refills. That small barrier -- forcing a consumer to get out of their seat and get a refill -- is a perfect soft deterrent that gently nudges the consumer's hand without holding it.

This one, though, takes away the option.

Which isn't to say it's all bad. The first step of the bill, which forces all vending machines to carry at least 50% of healthy foods, is worthwhile and something that should be instituted right away. Even going up to 75% is something I could get behind; when most vending machines are chock full of nothing but sugars and sodas and salts, it makes sense to force a healthier option to be available. Once again, all it does it gives us a fighting chance. But when the choice is taken away, when that bill turns the dial all the way to 100% in 2017, that's when complaints about "the nanny state" start to have validity to them.

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