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JAMA 100 Years Ago
March 12, 2003


Author Affiliations

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2003;289(10):1320. doi:10.1001/jama.289.10.1320-a

The protest against "sumptuary legislation" is the war cry of the man who considers it an inalienable right of the individual to eat and drink what he pleases. It is frequently raised and for selfish ends. A similar protest is that against legislation that seeks to have those who treat disease qualified to some extent. One of these protests was by Mark Twain, who urged that a man should not be limited in his choice of a physician. Since the legislation was to restrict incompetence it was equivalent to saying that a man should be allowed to die in any way he chooses. This would not be bad for a joke, but no joke was intended. A man is emphatically not privileged to die as he chooses, nor to eat and drink what he pleases. It is now recognized as a right of the community to forbid the sale of liquor to the habitual user of intoxicants, and the sale of cocain, of carbolic acid and of other drugs where proper use is not intended, and the sale of embalmed beef and of salicylic-acid-preserved food. No one disputes the right. The latest curtailment of alleged sumptuary rights is the action of the Board of Health of Ithaca, N. Y., the scene of the recent typhoid epidemic. It is made a misdemeanor, punishable by $50 fine or fifty days in jail, for anyone to drink unboiled city water or to furnish it to others for that purpose. Who will question their right to take this action? Two score homes bereaved, every available physician overworked, hospitals full, the work of a great university almost suspended, hundreds of lives threatened and the future health of the locality in jeopardy form the pollution—the community has indeed the right to limit individual acts that add to these perils. The rights of man and the rights of men are coming more and more to be interpreted in the light of ultimate results and for the greatest good to the greatest number.

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