couch potatoJANUARY 5 — Dietitians may be in favour of government policies to limit eateries’ operating hours until midnight and to introduce a sugary drinks tax because Malaysia is the fattest country in South-east Asia, but some of the proposed regulations are alarmingly intrusive and violate our civil rights. 

Some of the proposed government policies like exempting sports equipment from import duties and giving tax exemptions to gyms are fine. Requiring property developers to build “green areas” like bicycle lanes is also welcome.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged countries to impose a tax on sugary beverages to curb rising obesity, especially in children, and said a tax of 20 per cent or more will cause a decrease in sales and consumption of sugary drinks.

In the case of Mexico, a study of sugary-drink purchases found a 5.5 per cent drop in the first year after a sugar tax was introduced, followed by a 9.7 per cent decrease in the second year, averaging 7.6 per cent over the two-year period. However, scientists could not yet examine the effect of the sugar tax on health.

While it is good to finally recognise sugar to be the evil drug that it is, governments should not regulate consumption of it, any more than they should control the sales and consumption of other unhealthy food like potato chips, candy bars, or fried chicken.

Limiting the operating hours of restaurants and taxing sugary beverages are an affront to our right to live our lifestyles as we see fit.

In a country where the State is already interfering in what we read, how we dress and who we have sex with, the last thing we need is the government telling us what time we should or shouldn’t eat.

As much as I disagree with eating at midnight or 3am (I myself have three regular meals at 9am, 12.30pm and 7.30pm), I recognise that other people have their own routines and should have the right to make their own decisions over something as basic as meals.

The same goes for a sugary drinks tax. I abhor any sort of sin taxes.

People have the right to put whatever they want into their own body. The government should not be trying to control people’s bodies, whether it is about sex, reproductive choices, fitness activities, or the consumption of food, drink and other substances.

The government should not ban advertisements on food and drinks with high fat, salt and sugar content either, as that would affect business freedom. 

Businesses have the right to promote themselves, as long as they don’t put out misleading advertisements.

The most disturbing government proposal is to use one’s level of risk for getting non-communicable diseases (NCD) as a criterion in hiring and promotion in the civil service.

It is a preposterous and highly discriminatory suggestion. A government staffer’s body size has nothing to do with her skills, qualification or performance at work, unless the job requires a certain degree of physical fitness.

Trimming a literally bloated civil service (40.3 per cent of government and semi-government employees are obese) can be done through less discriminatory methods, like building gyms in government offices and prioritising contractors with healthy food options for government canteens.

Government departments can also reduce the number of breaks during working hours to prevent snacking and avoid providing any food and drink at all during meetings or functions. If staff want food at meetings, they will have to buy it themselves rather than use taxpayers’ money.

If some civil servants are efficient and can be trusted to work out of office, the relevant government department can even introduce work-from-home policies so that people have time to cook dinner, instead of going out to eat.

Regulating anything requires state resources and pose additional opportunities for corruption, which is why countries should have as few regulations as possible. Malaysia should focus more on combatting crime that hurt other people, rather than on regulating people’s own life decisions.

A sugary drinks tax, limiting restaurants’ operating hours and making physical fitness a criterion in public hiring will start a slippery slope. What is to stop the government from banning tobacco, alcoholic beverages, or fat-laden or processed food altogether? Or to make regular physical exercise mandatory at risk of punishment like fines?

Rather, the Ministry of Health should run fun campaigns promoting healthy food options and physical exercise.

Instead of promoting private vehicle usage by abolishing tolls, the government should make roads in Kuala Lumpur more pedestrian-friendly, like in Singapore, create more bicycle lanes throughout the city, and provide bicycle parking spots at MRT/ LRT stations.

The culture of walking and taking public transport cannot be inculcated by merely creating a train service; supporting infrastructure like regular feeder buses and smooth wide paths for pedestrians must also be there.

At the end of the day, we cannot force Malaysians to be healthy. As enticing as it would be to jail people who do not exercise at least twice a week, we must recognise that all of us have the right to live our personal lives as we see fit.