My piece provoked as I expected a number of interesting comments. Some take a strong libertarian line, which can be traced back to John Stuart Mill: government has no right to regulate private activity that does not have adverse effects on nonconsenting third parties. But I consider myself a Millian, and if I am correct that it is very difficult for people to absorb information about the dangers of trans fats, and if I am further correct that the cost of ill health from heart disease will be shifted in part through programs like Medicaid and Medicare to the as it were nonconsenting taxpayer, then the ban is Millian. I appreciate the concern that adoption of a sound regulation of restaurant meals will encourage further, less justifiable, interferences with consumer autonomy. But one can never expect government to get things just right, given the play of politics. There are always going to be silly regulations, but that is not a compelling argument for having no regulations at all. The commenters who denounce the "nanny state" do not indicate what if any regulations they approve of. Do they think there should be no inspections of restaurants by health inspectors? No regulation at all of food or drug safety by the Food and Drug Administration?
Some commenters think that people should be encouraged to study the dangers of trans fats and make their own judgments about what to eat. But people have limited time to do research on such matters. It makes sense to delegate the research to a central authority, so that instead of 300 million people trying to learn about trans fats and every other lurking menace, a handful of experts conducts the research and when it is reasonably obvious how we would react if we were informed of its results, implement the proper response. Surely our capacity to absorb information is quite limited and we must rely on the research of others for most of what we know and the knowledge of others for our protection.
Some of the comments reflect a (natural) misunderstanding of the concept of "value of life," pointing out correctly that people do not sell their lives for the calculated value. All value of life means is this: if the average person would demand $7,000 to assume a .001 (one in a thousand) risk of immediate death, there would be a net increase in social welfare if the risk could be averted at a cost of less than $7,000. Suppose 10,000 people are exposed to the risk. Then the total cost that the risk imposes is $70 million ($7,000 x 10,000), and net social welfare will be increased by a measure that eliminates the risk at a cost of less than $70 million. Another way to put this, with identical implications, is that a 1 in 1,000 risk of death will result in 10 deaths in a population of 10,000, and the $70 million loss figure amounts to valuing each life at $7 million.
Some comments take issue with the details of the cost-benefit analysis. That is fair, but notice how I scaled down the benefit figure radically in order to allow a generous margin of error, and how I excluded a major benefit--eliminating the suffering, as distinct from death from, heart disease. I doubt that any plausible adjustments could reverse my conclusion that the benefits of the ban exceed the costs.
I do think it worth emphasizing that trans fats seem exceptionally dangerous--almost in the category of poisons. The article in the New England Journal of Medicine that Professor Becker cites estimates a 6 to 19 percent reduction of what the authors call heart disease "events" from eliiminating trans fats, and the research backing it seems solid. Incidentally, I did not see in the article anything about trans fats doing more for the taste of foods than substitute oils--in fact the article discusses a Danish study that finds no quality difference.
I agree with Becker that many young people who are clogging their arteries by eating restaurant meals rich in trans fats will be saved by better cholesterol drugs that we can expect in the future. However, those drugs will doubtless be paid for in large measure by taxpayers through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. This means that the cost of trans fats will be shifted, in part at least, from those who consume them to those who do not--a classic externality, which justifies public intervention (depending on its cost and efficacy) even to Millian liberals such as myself.