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Fitness | KATHY SMITH

Unhealthy Choices Are Better Than No Choice

November 23, 1998|KATHY SMITH

The day before the recent elections, I innocently asked a friend about some of his planned votes. Big mistake. When we got to Proposition 10, the antitobacco initiative fronted by Rob Reiner, he turned into a raving lunatic, telling me more or less that its passage would signal the end of civilization as we know it.

I laughed at his overwrought language and wondered how he could be against a perfect initiative. Additional, hefty taxes on tobacco products would raise hundreds of millions of dollars for early childhood programs while at the same time discourage smoking. Sounded to me like a win-win.

"Look," he argued, "if a tax increase does discourage smoking, then it's not that addictive, and those tobacco company presidents weren't lying after all. But it is, and they were. So we're just going to end up with a black market."

And how about these childhood programs?

His answer: "Why pick on tobacco, which doesn't have anything to do with these programs? Why don't we tax cars, or hair spray? Or better yet, movies? Let's see how Rob Reiner likes that."

(At this point, you need to know that my friend has never smoked and loves movies.)

"I promise you something," he concluded. "If this proposition wins, the behavior police won't stop with smoking."

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Unswayed, I voted yes on Proposition 10, which passed by a razor-thin margin. But in the days after announcement of the passage, I began to reconsider my friend's point of view. What if, I began to wonder, foods were taxed according to their fat content? After all, too much dietary fat plays a big role in how healthy we are.

What if foods were taxed according to their sugar content? After all, too much sugar is bad for our system and rots our teeth.

What if work were taxed according to its inherent stress level, with those in the highest stress jobs paying more taxes than those holding more relaxing jobs? After all, too much stress is related to heart disease, among other maladies.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea: personal responsibility.

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In truth, our health is by and large a matter of personal responsibility. What impacts our health most are the choices we make every day about what to put in our body and how to spend our time. We have the choice of whether to swallow those extra calories and whether to strap on those walking shoes. Meanwhile, taxing our Big Macs and jobs, however well-intentioned the act, only creates more problems than it solves by infringing on our freedom.

What's needed is education. We have to find ways to convince people that their lives can be fuller and richer if they adopt healthier habits. And we have to motivate them to want to make those changes because they believe change will bring them greater happiness. All the taxes in the world will never succeed as well as personal motivation.

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My whole career in health and fitness has been based on that foundation. I believe that when you give people honest information about the damage done to their bodies by some of their less healthful habits, the majority will choose health by accepting personal responsibility for it. That means eating right, exercising regularly, staying up-to-date on immunizations, seeing a doctor annually, etc. All of them are choices--just as fatty foods, tobacco, alcohol, drugs and inactivity are choices.

And those, too, should remain choices.

Yes, it's hard to argue against the idea that we'd all be much better off if tobacco and lard and sugar and about 50 other products (like alcohol, which contributes to innumerable acts of domestic violence, thousands of tragedies on the roads, cirrhotic livers and broken families) disappeared from the planet.

But we live in a free country in which people are free to make unhealthy choices. No matter what taxes we, as a society, decide to levy on different products, I still believe that each of us is personally responsible for maintaining our own health.

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Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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