Steve Chapman

Many of them yearn to limit nicotine in cigarettes, at least until they can ban them entirely. Many would like to curb fast-food outlets as well: Los Angeles has blocked new ones from opening in some neighborhoods. Several local governments, including Boston and Philadelphia, have pronounced transfats verboten.

The usual rationale is safeguarding health, which Bloomberg said would save taxpayer dollars that go to treat residents afflicted with lifestyle-related diseases. His lawyers argued that sugary drinks promote obesity, which is to blame for many of the 500,000 or more New Yorkers who have diabetes, each of whom average an extra $6,649 a year in medical costs.

But the underlying motive is to enforce one model of acceptable behavior on everyone. Obesity is commonly regarded as a grave personal failing, an abdication of healthy restraint and abstinence. Some of the virtuous feel entitled to demand virtue of all.

Sound like anyone who landed at Plymouth Rock? Truth is, sexual puritans can make equally plausible arguments on the practical need to regulate the exercise of bedroom behavior, which has major implications for both health and government budgets.

Non-marital sex, after all, produces unwanted births, including among teens who will become public burdens. It increases the incidence of abortion, which some states cover under Medicaid. It spreads diseases that can have fatal consequences, including AIDS and human papillomavirus.

But in the realm of these fleshly pleasures, we have learned to let people make their own decisions, even if they have some impact on others. We've largely liberated ourselves from government interference into deeply personal choices that are a central part of what makes us human.

Well, some of them, anyway. Escaping the puritans is a task that is never finished.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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