Sunday, February 05, 2012

Gambling and Other Addictions (Revisiting Food Reward)

It's easy to be dismissive of other people's addictions. Gambling isn't heavily regulated here and there are a lot of herna bars in my neighborhood (smoke-filled bars with one-armed bandits and often other forms of gambling). There are four or five within a few blocks of our flat.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the "hyper-palatability" of modern processed food. This is often used as an excuse to regulate it. The line of reasoning goes something like this, "The evul corporashuns create hyper-palatable foods in their secret underground laboratories that we simply aren't capable of avoiding. Okay, WE can avoid those hyper-palatable Cheesy Poofs, but the poor dumb masses can't, so the government needs to step in." Stephan Guyenet, Robert Lustig and (apparently) most expert luminaries in the field of nutritional research generally take this as a given.

To quote Stephan from a few months back:
Dr. Robert Lustig gave a keynote address on Thursday evening, which I unfortunately wasn't able to attend due to my flight schedule.  From what I heard, he focused on practical solutions for reducing national sugar consumption, such as instituting a sugar tax.  Dr. Lustig was a major presence at the conference, and perhaps partially due to his efforts, sugar was a central focus throughout the day.  Nearly everyone agrees that added sugar is harmful to the nation's health at current intakes, so the question kept coming up "how long is it going to take us to do something about it?"  As Dr. David Ludwig said, "...the obesity epidemic can be viewed as a disease of technology with a simple, but politically difficult solution".

Taxes/regulations are vigorously opposed by the processed food industry, and also (more understandably) by people who don't want to have their food choices legislated.  Children in particular should be federally protected from predatory food industry practices.  Personally, I'm in favor of legislation that de-incentivizes added sugar consumption.  What if we had a sugar tax that paid for some of the obesity and diabetes-related expenditures that taxpayers currently shoulder through Medicare and Medicaid?  That would simply balance the "externalized" cost of health problems that are caused by sugar in the first place.
I'm not going to get into the externalities argument, that's easily shown to be a fallacy, but it oughtn't to matter even if it did exist.

Is the obesity epidemic a disease of technology? What does that even mean? Yes, we would all be healthier if we lived on farms, got plenty of exercise and ate real food--as long as we also had access to modern medicines like antibiotics, knowledge of germ theory, etc, along with knowledge of modern agricultural techniques. Otherwise we would be back in the middle ages where the average lifespan was like 12 nanoseconds or something.

I would liken the hyper-palatability of Cheesy Poofs to the hyper-gambility (yeah, I just made that up), of games like roulette or one-armed bandits with blinking lights and whatever else they come up with to stimulate the pleasure-response reaction. These could also be considered diseases of technology. If only electricity and the wheel hadn't been invented there'd be no roulette or one-armed bandits with blinking lights. And writing and the number system are responsible for the spread of card games such as poker. The solution is simple but politically difficult, more taxes, regulation and government intervention. Yeah right.

There's an addiction aspect to food. This I buy unconditionally. There's an addiction aspect to just about anything. Shopping is a big one that seems to affect a certain sex. But it can be anything, collecting stamps, finding the hippest band no one's every heard of, or memorizing baseball statistics. The main difference is that things like collecting stamps, unlike eating, aren't necessary for survival. Shopping is, at least in the world most of us live in, and I'm probably not the first one to suspect a hunter-GATHERER female predilection for this activity.

Getting back to the opening paragraph. It is easy to dismiss people engaging in an obviously destructive addiction like gambling. When I walk by a herna bar and see these people with their lined and weary faces lit by the light of a slot machine obsessively feeding in their hard earned coins I ought to think to myself, "There but for the grace of God, go I." Because I'm sure the impulse to become addicted to something like that has its germ in all of us.

What I don't condescendingly think to myself is that these people are suffering from a disease of technology and need to have the government step in and eliminate that technology for the good of the herd. I've a right, at least in some places, to shout from the rooftops that gambling is idiotic, animal fats are healthy, and ABBA really sucks. I don't have a right to use force to change people's behavior as long as they aren't hurting me. Lustig, Guyenet, et al, feel otherwise, but they've got PhDs and stuff.

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