Licensing vs. Freedom of Speech

Thursday, April 26, 2012

In North Carolina, a man is facing jail time (HT: Dismuke) for offering nutritional advice without a license.

Chapter 90, Article 25 of the North Carolina General Statutes makes it a misdemeanor to "practice dietetics or nutrition" without a license. According to the law, "practicing" nutrition includes "assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups" and "providing nutrition counseling."

Steve Cooksey has learned that the definition, at least in the eyes of the state board, is expansive.

When he was hospitalized with diabetes in February 2009, he decided to avoid the fate of his grandmother, who eventually died of the disease. He embraced the low-carb, high-protein Paleo diet, also known as the "caveman" or "hunter-gatherer" diet. The diet, he said, made him drug- and insulin-free within 30 days. By May of that year, he had lost 45 pounds and decided to start a blog about his success.
The story sees the obvious problem with freedom of speech in this case, but misses the more insidious problem with licensing in general:
"If people are writing you with diabetic specific questions and you are responding, you are no longer just providing information -- you are counseling," [Charla Burill, Director of the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition] wrote. "You need a license to provide this service."

The board also found fault with a page titled "My Meal Plan," where Cooksey details what he eats daily.

In red, Burril writes, "It is acceptable to provide just this information [his meal plan], but when you start recommending it directly to people you speak to or who write you, you are now providing diabetic counseling, which requires a license."
There is no reason consonant with the government's proper function of protecting individual rights for the government to restrict what individual citizens say or to whom they say it. That is, barring instances in which what someone says violates the rights of others (e.g., slander or fraud), it shouldn't be against the law, period, for anyone to say anything, including offering advice of any kind. People who hear advice have free will and minds of their own: They can accept or reject what they hear, and simply offering advice, good or bad, doesn't pick their pockets or break their legs.

On top of this, as John Stossel recently pointed out, the whole idea of the government relieving consumers of the need to think for themselves is bunk for several reasons. (Regarding the Stossel piece, I noted, too, that such "protection" does far more harm than any charlatan can by paving the road for them -- by putting people to sleep.)

It is also worth noting something that Brian Phillips, author of Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, has pointed out about licensing:
[I]n Texas a licensing law was passed that requires computer-repair technicians to obtain a criminal justice degree or serve a three-year apprenticeship under a licensed private investigator...

Consider what this might mean in your life if you live in Texas. Suppose that your teenage neighbor offers to repair your computer. You know he is competent because he has built several computers for himself. You agree to hire him on terms that are mutually acceptable. The state of Texas however, would consider your neighbor a criminal because he has not obtained the required criminal justice degree. Who would be harmed by such a transaction? Not you. Not your neighbor. Not most of the other twenty-five million people who live in Texas and know nothing of your transaction. The only people "harmed" would be those computer technicians who do not want to compete in a free market. Restricting entry into a profession, and the higher incomes that result for those who are licensed, is the real motivation behind occupational licensing.
I do not follow the "Paleo" diet (and, like science blogger John Cook, object to the nonsense often used to advocate it), but I do agree with many of its advocates that the government actively encourages unhealthy eating habits with its various guidelines and regulations. Not only does North Carolina's licensing law bar entry of would-be nutritionists into professional practice, it does so at the cost of harming the consumers it is supposed to be protecting: probably by institutionalizing bad advice, and certainly by lulling people into not thinking about nutrition, eliminating choice from the market, and, worst of all, by violating freedom of speech.

Licensing laws are an evil, freedom-violating cancer that must be abolished.

-- CAV


Andrew Dalton said...

Licensing also gives police the legal cover to launch warrantless drug raids:

Gus Van Horn said...

It's hard to get me to say this anymore, but wow!

Anonymous said...

I follow the paleo method of eating. I even did a blog post on it. Do I curse myself for eating a McDonald's cheeseburger? No. But through my own research I found that this is a good way of minimizing my chances of heart disease--which runs in my family. In fact, my diet hasn't really changed, I just reduced the amount of grain based foods.

The fact that this man can be put in prison for offering advice on food methods that worked for him, says a lot about the arbitary nature of such laws. So that means my blog, your blog, or anyone's blog promoting a subject that peaks a bloggers interest could be subject to this type of persecution because we aren't "liscened". This is a nightmare. A state run nutrition board?? Give me a break.

Bookish Babe

Gus Van Horn said...


It is indeed especially because (as Stossel pointed out) that so many experts in nutrition disagree that your method -- individual research and testing -- is vital, especially for individuals who may be able to avert illness through changes in diet. And it is exactly this that such laws are preventing -- in the name of consumer safety!


Steve D said...

‘I just reduced the amount of grain based foods.’
Well, they’re basically empty calories. There is a bit of a paradox here. Grains do not really contain a lot of nutrition but farming them was a very important step towards the development of early civilization. On the other hand, agriculture probably was a bad thing from a health standpoint compared to hunting and gathering. Corn, wheat, rice (and sugar cane) are the most efficient ways to produce calories known to us. We can live on all the continents, and grow our numbers to billions only because of these crops. There is no way at the present that a large proportion of the human race could substantially reduce their intake of grain-based foods. Trying to do so would cause massive starvation.
As far as anyone offering me advice on what to eat, I don’t see why other than me, or the person who did it should care.

Gus Van Horn said...


That may be, but the question I see the paleodieters asking is whether grains are "optimal" for human health in general.

I think that's a valid concern -- for individuals. Part of my objection to how the popularizers of the "paleo" diet sell it is that they seem not to explicitly acknowledge that individuals can vary in their ability to process certain foods. So long as individuals who adopt this diet basically ignore that error and take an experimental approach, and don't beat themselves up for eating "forbidden" foods they like, but find harmless, they probably won't get into trouble.

But humans do, in fact, differ from each other genetically (If individuals in a species didn't differ from each other genetically, evolution would be impossible.), and glossing over this fact, and assuming, wrongly, that evolution perfectly adapts species to their environments potentially can cause problems.

One possible example comes from a paleodieter I've seen held up as an expert. He acknowledges, for example, that a "common" problem among new adopters of this diet is hypothyroidism. (He claims that his hypothyroidism cleared with the diet, but individuals do vary in how they process food.)

Now, I don't want to pooh-pooh the health improvements some people have had on this diet, but I am quite healthy without it. Why, with even proponents of this diet admitting such a problem, would I want to adopt it? Assuming this problem actually IS caused by the diet, this indicates to me that either there are things not completely nailed down about this diet or that it isn't "optimal" for all individuals or both. Or maybe some people get suckered by the "caveman" stereotype and fail to experiment adequately, but given the marketing ploy, why is that any surprise?


Steve D said...

Your point about the variation in how humans process foods is well taken. I’ve been beating on this drum for years. Just look at the size of the error bars in most of the scientific reports. One reason why progress in this field is slow is because variability makes it very difficult to make generalizations.

What I find most annoying is the 'type' of arguments that are often used to defend the diet. This is an epistemological and a scientific issue. In particular, the so called 'evolutionary' hypothesis is frequently invoked. That this is what we evolved eating so, therefore that will be the healthiest for us. There are so many problems with that line of reasoning on so many levels, that I could write an essay but perhaps a bigger issue is how poor most people’s understanding is, of how evolution works. (But differences in environment, age, genetics, level of exercise, possibly even placebo effect factor in to what food is best)

As far as grain being ‘optimal’ for human health, I would be surprised if that was the case – for example corn kernels are not even optimal for corn seedling health - But what is optimal depends a lot on how much and what other things you eat. It may very well turn out that a certain level of grain is good and above or below that, it becomes no longer favorable. Obviously, modern humans eat a lot of grain-based foods, I would suspect in most cases more than what they really should.

I’ve also noticed that dieting and diets regularly take on an almost religious aspect for the people promoting or using them. If so this simply makes the idea of governments regulating information about them even scarier.

Gus Van Horn said...

"There are ... many problems with that line of reasoning on so many levels ... but perhaps a bigger issue is how poor most people's understanding is, of how evolution works. (But differences in environment, age, genetics, level of exercise, possibly even placebo effect factor in to what food is best)"

I agree.