‘Unlicensed diet advice’? Mississippi repeats North Carolina’s mistake

Reason reports on some silliness out of Mississippi:

On January 22, [Donna] Harris received a cease-and-desist letter from the Mississippi Department of Health. Talking about healthy eating on Facebook and getting paid to do it, the department said, could trigger a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. In the eyes of the state, Harris was an unlicensed dietician—and apparently enough of a threat to public safety that she might need to be put behind bars.

Harris wasn’t pretending to be a licensed dietician. In fact, her Facebook page and website both specify that she isn’t one. Anyone willing to pay her for advice on eating healthier was engaged in a voluntary transaction—one that has little to do with the state government’s interests.

In a lawsuit filed this week on Harris’ behalf, the Mississippi Justice Institute, a nonprofit law firm, argues that Mississippi’s overzealous enforcement of its dietician licensing law violated Harris’ First Amendment rights.

North Carolina displayed this exact kind of nonsense in 2012 until 2015:

In 2009, Steve Cooksey was hospitalized with Type II diabetes, the same disease that had killed his grandmother. Determined not to suffer the same fate and not wanting to spend the rest of his life on insulin and other diabetes drugs, the Stanley, N.C., man turned to dieting. Through the carbohydrate-limiting, high-protein “Paleo” diet and exercise, Cooksey lost 78 pounds, got off the insulin, and then got into blogging about his experiences.

Through his blog, DiabetesWarrior.net, Cooksey freely answered readers’ questions about controlling diabetes through diet and also offered paid life-coaching services to readers adopting the Paleo lifestyle. In doing so, Cooksey ran afoul of the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition.

In January 2012, the State Board told Cooksey that, free or not, he could not offer personal dieting advice without a license and even that his private email messages and telephone conversations amounted to unlicensed and illegal dietetic assessment and advice. The board gave Cooksey 19 pages’ worth of his own writings with passages marked with red pen to explain what he was not allowed to say. Threatened with a misdemeanor conviction, jail time, and thousands of dollars in fines, Cooksey discontinued his life-coaching and advice column.

At the end, the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition adopted new guidelines to allow people to give “ordinary diet advice without a government license.” It was smart to do so, for obvious reasons and also because it ended Cooksey’s lawsuit against the board. Will Mississippi’s DOH be as circumspect?

Just another example why licensing should be the regulation of last resort

Outside of this, however, Mississippi is one of the leading states in the De-Licensing Revolution.  In 2016, Mississippi lawmakers enacted the Occupational Board Compliance Act, which offers a stepwise response to occupational regulation, beginning with protecting occupational freedom.

See here for explanation of why such a policy is important and what tests a state should apply to make sure an occupational regulation isn’t stricter than necessary.

Jon Sanders / Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...