LIKE smoking, drinking in excess and driving while talking on the phone, eating too much salt is bad for our health.

The scientific and statistical research that motivates government efforts to reduce the negative effects these habits and lifestyle choices have on society is indisputable. Less clear, however, is whether direct state intervention is always justified, necessary, effective or even - when taken to extremes - legal.

Few would dispute these days that exercising the right to smoke should be banned by law in public buildings on the basis that lighting up infringes others' right to breathe fresh air. Similar arguments can be made for regulations preventing people from driving while drunk or using cellphones - individual rights can and should be limited when exercising them endangers others, and society should not be expected to carry the cost burden of individuals' poor lifestyle choices.

However, even if you exclude the issue of enforceability, there is also some merit to the position of those who oppose the excessive regulation of society. At what point does protecting people from secondhand smoke switch from legitimate concern over their health to an unjustified assault on smokers' rights, for instance? Is smelling smoke in an open-air stadium a genuine health risk, or a mere inconvenience? Similarly, it is highly debatable whether banning alcohol advertising would be effective as a means of reducing abuse, and therefore whether such draconian intervention is justified given the likely job losses.

The question of salt intake is more complex, since it is only partly a matter of individual choice. We opt to smoke, drink or answer a ringing phone, but are not always in a position to decide - or even notice - how much salt the food we buy contains. And imposing limits on the salt content of processed foods, as the government is now set to do, does not necessary limit choice since individuals remain free to add salt to their meals should they so wish.

The deciding factor should perhaps be the fact that there is little opposition to the move by the formal food sector, although it will bear much of the compliance burden. This may in part be because the big multinational companies have already gone through this process in the developed world, so it actually might be easier for them to conform to the same standards in South Africa.

It has also been suggested that the bigger companies would prefer government regulation to a voluntary arrangement because all food producers, big and small, would then be on the same playing field.