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Dr Peter Agre(MD) recently said this at the Lindau Meeting (Original full text from Ars Technica)

Agre also noted that many of the biggest public health problems are a result of lifestyle choices. Cigarette smoking is a major cause of preventable illnesses, but it's far from the only one—Agre mentioned melanoma and colon cancer as being similar in nature. Public awareness and education, in the form of the surgeon general's statement on the risks of cigarette smoking and cancer and the recently updated FDA warnings on packaging can have a significant impact here, he argued. But their impact is much greater if they're packaged with actual enforcement efforts

Is it ethical for the government to compel the citizens of the country to take up healthy lifestyles? From a practical standpoint, if the war on drugs was unsuccessful, why do we think the war on obesity and smoking will be any more successful?

  • I've reformulated the title slightly, and tried to make the last paragraph somewhat more neutral -- just wanted to let you know so that you can rollback or ideally improve. – Joseph Weissman Jul 2 '11 at 1:43
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This is a heavily debated issue and you are not likely to receive a conclusive answer. The question as phrased amounts to "Which view is correct?", but there are strong arguments from either side. I think you will benefit from doing a little research on the topics of Paternalism and Consequentialist Libertarianism, which are the general terms used in philosophy to refer to either standpoint. I have included descriptions of these views and links to places to start below:


Paternalism

Paternalism is the interference of a state or an individual with another person, against their will, and defended or motivated by a claim that the person interfered with will be better off or protected from harm. The issue of paternalism arises with respect to restrictions by the law such as anti-drug legislation, the compulsory wearing of seatbelts, and in medical contexts by the withholding of relevant information concerning a patient's condition by physicians. At the theoretical level it raises questions of how persons should be treated when they are less than fully rational.


Consequentialist Libertarianism

John Stuart Mill's 1859, On Liberty made the case that "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign". Here is a helpful excerpt from the Wikipedia page:

Perhaps the most memorable point made by Mill in this work, and his basis for liberty, is that "over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign". Mill is compelled to make this assertion in opposition to what he calls the "tyranny of the majority", wherein through control of etiquette and morality, society is an unelected power that can do horrific things. Mill's work could be considered a reaction to this social control by the majority and his advocacy of individual decision-making over the self. The famous Harm Principle, or the principle of liberty, is also articulated in this work: the state of any other social body has no right to coerce or restrict the individual unless the individual causes harm to others, crucially, the individual's own physical or moral harm is not justification for constriction of their liberty. All branches of liberalism—as well as other political ideologies—consider this to be one of their core principles. However, they often disagree on what exactly constitutes harm.
3

Addressing the second half of the question:

The likely goals of a "war on obesity" seem, to me, not to parallel those of the cluster of US policies that "The War On Drugs" usually refers to. So it's possible it would play out differently.

Obesity is a long-term condition, a cumulative effect of things that happen over some period of time. Preventing obesity might involve forbidding or mandating certain moment-to-moment choices (banning chocolate, requiring exercise to use public services) but those things are not themselves the goal. It's theoretically possible to end obesity without eradicating any of the behaviors that promote it.

On the other hand, anti-drug goals are often, if not always, stated in terms of ending drug use (the moment-to-moment choice) rather than drug addiction or other long-term drug conditions. See William Bennett's statement here or a US official boasting about cocaine shortages.

(Note that long-term harms from the use of certain drugs are often cited as a motivation for banning drug use, but that is not the same as using them to characterize what a program's simple intent is.)

For an anti-obesity program to be futile for the reasons the "War On Drugs" is, it would need to be framed as a "war on dessert" and use an all-or-nothing framing under which each time any person eats a donut is a mark against the program, with long-term obesity rates being at best a second-order indicator of success.

I agree that a "war on smoking" would most likely take a form parallel to the War On Drugs, i.e. an attempt to ban and interdict cigarettes, and would likely be framed such that the inevitable market in contraband cigarettes would be treated as the failure of the program, and so would be no more successful than the War On Drugs.

This whole answer is based on speculation about how a "war on obesity" or "war on smoking", so named, would likely be handled by the US government as it contingently exists; I am not claiming any abstract distinctions between the various realms of human behavior that these different "wars" would seek to affect.

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