Punjab Food Authority is one of the rare public organisations that have cultivated a significant amount of prominence coupled with goodwill. Much of this stems from PFA being a pro-active organisation. As an additional factor, it has used the news and social media well to convey details of the actions that it has taken in public welfare. However, its latest planned action could lead to serious controversy.
As per recent news reports, PFA is considering to float proposals to ban the sale and consumption of energy drinks in Punjab. Till now most of its enforcement related actions have been focused at establishments selling food (or ingredients thereof). Hence its actions have been seen as facilitating good hygiene, better health (concomitant lower costs for the healthcare system) and general public welfare.
A ban on energy drinks would be a more murky territory. Of course Pakistan or Punjab are not the first state or province to consider banning such drinks. And every time a ban has been considered on such drinks the justification is consistent: the ingredients in energy drinks are harmful to health. This much is fine. But the immediate logical question is: do we ban every substance that is harmful to human health? And where does the potential harm to human health from energy drinks lie when compared to say cigarettes?
We warn people when they decide to buy a pack of cigarettes; even though it is certain that there will be adverse consequences. A pack of cigarettes is also the face of death — indeed one sits in the Museum of Death if anyone ever had a doubt. Bottomline: we do not tell people that you cannot smoke. We warn them and trust their good judgement. Even if a pregnant woman decides to buy cigarettes, no law in this country says that the sale of cigarettes to her shall be prohibited. So why ban energy drinks?
One reason that has been offered by PFA, as per news reports, is that energy drinks have significant amounts of caffeine and taurine. Further they can make people hyper-active. Even if the talk about hyper-activity is a bit of a generalisation, one would be within her rights to ask if a state has an interest in monitoring how much black coffee one drinks in the morning?
People drink different kinds of coffee as well as energy drinks often for the same purpose: to get a buzz, to feel a burst of energy before an exam, a meeting or an important event. What is so significant about energy drinks compared to large amounts of coffee that the former deserve a ban?
Furthermore, if the state is going to be paternalistic then why pick energy drinks? Different kinds of saturated foods, fats, sugar that form a part of our diet on a much more regular basis and, in the long run, cause far more damage than a can of a drink that gives you wings. Will the state be telling us what to eat or drink? Of course the state can tell us what to eat or drink: it prohibits certain items because it deems them illegal (e.g. alcohol) and regulates use of other substances (e.g. prescription drugs).
Food items often cannot be sold unless they meet specific standards — and you cannot misrepresent the character or quality of what you are selling as food. So why are energy drinks such a big deal? Lack of consistency, in my view, is reason enough to debate this issue.
Also, will we be banning all energy drinks? What proportion of population do they reach and what numbers does the government have regarding their effect on the healthcare system?
These questions are important because inefficacious bans make a mockery of state authority. That favours no one.
Bear in mind that this is a difficult debate and reasonable people can passionately disagree about the processes and outcomes deemed desirable here. I am not in favour of the state telling people what kind of jelly, meat or cola they can consume — unless the ingredients are fake and are not what they are represented to be. But if people are given a warning about what they are about to consume, then I am as much for three shots of espresso as I am for an energy drink or a pack of cigarettes.
Part of the reason that cigarettes are still sold and manage to avoid figuring in this debate is a testament to the strength of the tobacco lobby throughout the world. And I say this as a smoker. Cigarettes are bad for our health — and if I am allowed to buy them I should be allowed to buy a can of an energy drink if I want a buzz before taking an exam.
When Obama’s signature healthcare law was challenged before the Supreme Court of the US, one argument put forward was that universal health insurance is good for everyone; the argument was that the state can tell people what to buy — even penalise them if they do not. This led to the famous question by the late Justice Scalia: can the government tell people to eat broccoli?
Professors Sunstein and Thaler have written a great book called Nudge which deals with many of the questions surrounding such governmental policies. They advocate libertarian paternalism. For instance, if research shows that we buy food or drink placed at or near to our eye-level in a café then place healthy foods at the eye-level — instead of banning foods deemed unhealthy. Maybe the work of Thaler and Sunstein, as well as others in this field, is something that Punjab can learn from.
I do not mean to belittle the very genuine concern of healthcare professionals, politicians or PFA regarding human health. In a crumbling healthcare system, all stakeholders have an interest in controlling and lowering healthcare costs — actual as well as preventive. However, debating these issues is important — the government will listen if we are willing to engage in constructive dialogue. Through our disagreements, we should be able to find a balance. I am not in favour of banning the sale of energy drinks — where do you stand?