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Debate: Trans fat ban

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Should trans fats be banned?

Background and context

Trans fat is the common name for unsaturated fat with trans-isomer (E-isomer) fatty acid(s). It can be found in Oreos, cup-cakes, french fries, deep-fried dishes, croissants, and other foods. It is so unhealthy for individuals that many legislators have proposed and executed bans of the use of trans fats in restaurants, and in some cases in grocery goods as well.
New York City was the first US city to successfully ban trans fats in December of 2006. Philadelphia followed in October of 2007. San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago have all passed similar bans or limitations since. Many other legislatures in the US are pursuing bans. Denmark was the first country to effectively ban trans fats in 2003, with Switzerland following in 2009. The debate continues in many other countries and localities. While many believe that the world might be healthier without the substance, others contend that trans fats have a particularly delicious taste, and serve the functional purpose of extending the shelf-life of foods. Opponents of a ban also criticize efforts by the government to protect consumers by limiting their choices, calling this "infantilization" and "nannying." But supporters respond that trans fats are so widespread in restaurants and products (often without labeling) that consumers really don't have an informed "choice" in consuming the fat. And while many argue that banning trans fats is like trying to ban tobacco or alcohol, supporters respond that trans fats are only an ingredient (not a whole product category) for which their are replacement ingredients that can maintain the taste and quality of the final food products. These and other arguments are outlined below.
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Health: Are trans fats uniquely unhealthy, deserving ban?

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Pro

  • Trans fats are uniquely bad for human health "Ban Trans Fats." Washington Post Editorial. November 6th, 2006: "The evidence that doctors and public health experts presented makes you think twice about picking up a Whopper: Trans fats, which are chemically engineered, decrease levels of desirable cholesterol while increasing harmful cholesterol; they increase dangerous inflammation that can contribute to the onset of diabetes; and they harden artery walls, which increases blood pressure. Trans fats are much worse than even naturally occurring -- and still very unhealthy -- saturated fats such as those found in butter. Dariush Mozaffarian, a Harvard cardiologist and epidemiologist, calculated that up to 22 percent of heart attacks in the United States are the result of trans fat consumption."
  • Banning trans fats means saving thousands of lives "Ban trans fats and thousands of lives will be saved, UK told." Independent. April 16th, 2010: "Even a 1 per cent fall in use of the fats, as a proportion of total daily calories, would prevent an estimated 11,000 heart attacks and save 7,000 lives a year in England alone. Consumption of trans fats in developed nations ranges from 2-4 per cent of total calorie intake, they say. [...] In New York, voluntary efforts to reduce their use failed, but when they were banned in 2007 the proportion of New York restaurants using trans fats fell from 50 per cent to less than 2 per cent. (Some trans fats occur naturally so they cannot be totally eliminated.) Fears that trans fats would be replaced with saturated animal fat, which is also bad for health, have proved unfounded. Writing in the British Medical Journal, Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor of medicine, and Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology at Harvard, say removing industrial trans fats is 'one of the most straightforward public health strategies for rapid improvements in health.' A ban would save lives, be easy to implement yet have no impact on the price, sales, taste or availability of the affected foods, they say."
  • Trans fats have created health crisis worthy of ban. Bans should be reserved for very serious health crises. The obesity, heart attacks, and death caused by the presence of trans fats in diets is such a crisis. A ban is, thus, an appropriate regulatory response.
  • Trans fats are a man-made type of fat. Natural fats are one thing. But trans fats are entirely man-made creations, and are significantly worse for individuals than natural fats. For this reason, it is reasonable to consider banning them.


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Con

Trans fat is a waste of our resources:The issue with trans fat is that there is no better substitute. The fact that the substitute are also as bad if not worse than trans fat itself. By banning trans fat, restaurants all over the United States will have to take on these substitute thus undermining the work of the government. This process is a waste of our resources as the government will have to spend huge amount of money in the process of banning trans fat without getting any positive outcome. "he trans fat ban would only have clear benefits if it were to cause a general reduction in overconsumption (whatever that is) of high-fat foods -- but a restaurant ban on one ingredient is a pretty inefficient way of getting to that result. And any increase in costs to consumers without corresponding benefits is a waste of money. In response, some have argued that switching to non-trans fat oils will be no more expensive." http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.892/news_detail.asp

  • People will consume other harmful foods if not trans fats. "In Defense of Trans Fat." Fox News: "even if trans fats were eliminated, the proposal would prove laughably ineffective. While the law would curtail onion rings, for example, it would remain perfectly legal to gorge oneself on Häagen-Dazs or Hershey Bars — both unhealthy foods that contain no trans fat."
  • Trans fats extend shelf life of foods. Trans fats serve an important function of extending the shelf life of products. This is very important from a number of angles. First, it means products will last longer and be more economical to producers and consumers alike. Second, it means individuals are less likely to accidentally consume spoiled food and become sick as a result.
  • Trans fats occur naturally in many forms. Trans fats do occur naturally in low levels in foods such as milk, beef, and lamb. Trans fats are, in their most basic form, just solidified fats. Since they can occur naturally, it is obviously wrong to call them purely "man-made" fats. And, the fact that they occur naturally diminishes some of the more purist, moralist arguments against such "man made" creations.
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Govt vs. markets: Does govt have a legitimate place here?

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Pro

  • Govt experts needed to protect citizens from trans fats. "The Trans Fats Ban--Posner's Response to Comments." The Becker Posner Blog. December 24th, 2006: "one can never expect government to get things just right, given the play of politics. There are always going to be silly regulations, but that is not a compelling argument for having no regulations at all. The commenters who denounce the 'nanny state' do not indicate what if any regulations they approve of. Do they think there should be no inspections of restaurants by health inspectors? No regulation at all of food or drug safety by the Food and Drug Administration? Some commenters think that people should be encouraged to study the dangers of trans fats and make their own judgments about what to eat. But people have limited time to do research on such matters. It makes sense to delegate the research to a central authority, so that instead of 300 million people trying to learn about trans fats and every other lurking menace, a handful of experts conducts the research and when it is reasonably obvious how we would react if we were informed of its results, implement the proper response. Surely our capacity to absorb information is quite limited and we must rely on the research of others for most of what we know and the knowledge of others for our protection."
  • Trans fats "unsafe" under regulatory standards. "Ban Trans Fats." Washington Post Editorial. November 6th, 2006: "Currently, the FDA considers all uses of trans fats to be 'generally regarded as safe,' a designation that allows food producers to use trans fats liberally. According to the FDA, however, 'safe' means 'a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under its intended conditions of use' -- a criterion that trans fats no longer satisfy. Federal regulators should promptly move to revoke the 'generally regarded as safe' status for most -- if not all -- uses of trans fats, which would effectively eliminate trans fats from American food. Leaving local jurisdictions to regulate trans fats, on the other hand, is an unnecessarily arduous way to stop their use."
  • Trans fat ban needn't be whole solution to be good. Some claim trans fats aren't the whole problem with people's health and that they contribute only a little bit to the overall health issues faced by individuals. They claim that making good choices overall is the most important factor. But none of this negates the fact that banning trans fats can make a positive contribution in reducing obesity and heart disease. That a ban can have any such significant effect makes banning trans fats a worthwhile endeavor. Solving all or even most of our health problems is too high a bar to judge a ban.
  • Poor and young are unfairly vulnerable to trans fats. Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health said in 2010: "There are great differences in the amount of trans-fats consumed by different people and we are particularly concerned about young people and those with little disposable income who eat a lot of this type of food. This is a major health inequalities issue."[1]


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Con

  • Trans fat ban creates slippery slope to further nannying George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux asks what a trans fats ban is a model for: "Petty tyranny? Or perhaps for similarly inspired bans on other voluntary activities with health risks? Clerking in convenience stores? Walking in the rain?"[2]
  • Government should inform citizens, not ban trans fats "Banned foods and misinformed consumers." Los Angeles Times. June 20th, 2008: "rather than ban HFCS or trans fats or any of these unhealthy foods, it would be far more effective to embark on an aggressive campaign to education consumers -- much as we've done with tobacco. In the case of trans fats, consumers need to understand what these substances are, why the industry uses them and what the consequences are. If information on trans fats and other "bad" foods were provided within a broader program of nutrition awareness, consumers might gradually eliminate the use of trans fats voluntarily, in the same way that many people have rejected tobacco. I also suspect that, as the public became more fluent in the language of diet and nutrition, the food industry would be less and less inclined to use such ingredients."
  • Resources for regulating trans fats take from other things. Art Carden. "Life, Liberty And The Pursuit Of Fatty Foods." Forbes. March 4th, 2010: "There is also no such thing as a free 'trans-fat-free' lunch. Restricting trans fat consumption requires resources. Police officers could instead use these resources to enforce laws against crimes like theft, property damage, rape and murder, and educators could use these resources in the classroom. Are educators using their time and resources wisely preventing illegal bake sales and making sure school fundraisers and functions sell only stuff that's on the 'approved' list?"


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Choice: Is a ban consistent with consumer choice?

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Pro

  • Govt should protect consumers when consumers aren't fully informed. It is all good and great to call for an "education campaign" to inform consumers of what they are eating. But, this is very often just not enough. No matter what the government does, people will simply miss the "instructional" information provided by the government and will continue to consume trans fats without full information regarding its negative effects. In such circumstances, it is the government's job to step in a take action through a ban or other measures.
  • Trans fats so widespread consumers have little choice When something is so systemically widespread - used in dishes and consumer goods of every kind - it is impossible for citizens to always be aware of the fact that a food has trans fats in them and make the "choice" to eat or not to eat them.
  • Producers sneak trans fats into foods without consumer knowledge. "Hidden danger - trans fats in foods." Choice. June 26th, 2009: "They rarely rate a mention on the label, but the trans fats hidden in many processed foods are worse for your health than saturated fats. In 2005, CHOICE tested more than 50 processed foods and found many contained trans fats at unacceptably high levels. We’ve retested and can reveal that, while the fast-food chains have reduced their levels of trans fats, and some of the foods we tested previously have eliminated trans fats altogether, others now contain even more than before. Foods such as pies, cakes and doughnuts may contain trans fats without you even knowing about it."


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Con

  • Enough info for consumers to make choice on trans fats. John Stossel. "What will they ban next?" Real Clear Politics. December 20th, 2006: "In a free society the issue is: Who decides what I eat, the government or me? It's not as though information about trans fats is hard to come by. Scaremongers like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are all too happy to tell you about the dangers, and they have no trouble getting their declarations of doom on television and into newspapers."
  • Trans fat bans part of larger trend of infringements. "In defense of trans fats." Fox News Editorial: "this country has now become a land where everything — right down to the foods you put in your body, can be regulated by political mob. Forget 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' In New York, and increasingly in the nation as a whole — providing one can get enough votes — anything goes. One need not be a Constitutional scholar to understand how this disgusting trend will significantly affect our economy, our liberty and the very essence of the American way of life."


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Replacements: Can trans fats be adequately replaced?

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Pro

  • Trans fats can be replaced w/o changing taste/price. "Ban Trans Fats." Washington Post Editorial. November 6th, 2006: "We would sympathize with the opponents of the trans fat ban if it weren't so easy and inexpensive to use other, less harmful products without significantly altering the taste of the food. Kraft recently eliminated trans fats from its Oreo cookies. Could you tell? Similarly, Wendy's tested its new frying oil in 370 franchises, and customers didn't notice the difference. Denmark imposed a national ban on trans fats with which even McDonald's has complied. Since trans fats aren't irreplaceable, objections for the sake of consumer freedom are also unconvincing. As with lead added to paint, trans fats are unnecessary additives to consumer products that can cause significant harm -- and many Americans don't even know they are in the restaurant food they are eating."


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Con

  • Few alternatives to trans fats for certain foods. Michael Mason of The New York Times: "for preparing certain kinds of foods, there are few alternatives besides the saturated fats that have long been high on the list of artery-clogging foods."[3]
  • Transition away from trans fats will be costly. Tina Pantazis, the manager of Dino's Burgers, which operates two hamburger outlets: "The only effect it is going to have on the consumer is that we are going to have to raise our prices."[4]


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Vs tobacco/alcohol: Is trans fat ban like banning alcohol/tobacco?

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Pro

  • Trans fat ingredient has replacements unlike tobacco/alcohol. Opponents of banning trans fats frequently compare the idea with that of banning alcohol or tobacco. You can't ban trans fats if you're not willing to also ban tobacco and alcohol, they say. But, this misses a key difference. While banning cigarettes and alcohol mean banning an entire product category, banning the ingredient of trans fats means no such thing. Rather, it simply means that readily available replacement ingredients must be used in the preparation of the same foods. And, since these fatty replacements are widespread and cheaply available, food makers and consumers should have little difficulty making the adjustment to making and consuming the same, albeit slightly modified, foods.


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Con

  • Banning trans fats is like banning alcohol and tobacco Milton Friedman wrote in the 1980s: "If we continue on this path, there is no doubt where it will end. If the government has the responsibility of protecting us from dangerous substances, the logic surely calls for prohibiting alcohol and tobacco. . . . Insofar as the government has information not generally available about the merits or demerits of the items we ingest or the activities we engage in, let it give us the information. But let it leave us free to choose what chances we want to take with our own lives."[5]


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Economics: Is banning trans fats economical?

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Pro

  • Trans fats can be replaced w/o changing taste/price. "Ban Trans Fats." Washington Post Editorial. November 6th, 2006: "We would sympathize with the opponents of the trans fat ban if it weren't so easy and inexpensive to use other, less harmful products without significantly altering the taste of the food. Kraft recently eliminated trans fats from its Oreo cookies. Could you tell? Similarly, Wendy's tested its new frying oil in 370 franchises, and customers didn't notice the difference. Denmark imposed a national ban on trans fats with which even McDonald's has complied. Since trans fats aren't irreplaceable, objections for the sake of consumer freedom are also unconvincing. As with lead added to paint, trans fats are unnecessary additives to consumer products that can cause significant harm -- and many Americans don't even know they are in the restaurant food they are eating."
  • Replacement fats will get cheaper with time. Replacements for trans fats will get cheaper and cheaper with time, as they are used more frequently and as the companies that produce and distribute them increase their sales volumes and are able to sell them for lower prices.


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Con

  • Trans fat ban will hurt small restaurants most. Carlie Irwin. "Trans fat ban: Good for you, bad for restaurants?" Girls Guide to the Galaxy. April 18th, 2011: "Since most of the big chains have already started the process of eliminating trans fat from their food, the ban would be no big deal to them. But small, independent restaurants are another story. The potential ban has small restaurant owners sweating and nervously eyeing their deep fryers. As the St. Louis Business Journal points out, many small restaurant owners don’t have the ability to effectively and efficiently reformulate their menu items. So banning trans fat could mean that your favorite independently-owned fried chicken joint down the street will be shuttering its doors."
  • Trans fats extend shelf life of foods. Trans fats serve an important function of extending the shelf life of products. This is very important from a number of angles. First, it means products will last longer and be more economical to producers and consumers alike. Second, it means individuals are less likely to accidentally consume spoiled food and become sick as a result.


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