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A win for amateurs
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A win for amateurs

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Steve Cooksey was in bad shape. He was overweight and newly diagnosed with diabetes in 2009. So he did something about it, in dramatic fashion.

After radically changing his diet, he lost 78 pounds and saw his blood sugar return to normal. He was so enthusiastic about his accomplishment — who wouldn’t be? — that he started a blog to share his story.

Then he heard from the N.C. Board of Dietetics/Nutrition.

The board’s mission is to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of North Carolina from harmful nutrition practice by providing for the licensure and regulation of persons engaged in the practice of dietetics/nutrition and by establishing educational standards for those persons.”

By late-2011, Cooksey’s blog had become so popular that readers were seeking his advice about diet and healthy practices, and he was using his own experience to offer suggestions. That is where he ran into trouble.

When Cooksey answered a reader who asked about a friend: “Your friend must first and foremost obtain and maintain normal blood sugars,” the Board of Dietetics/Nutrition responded that he was “assessing and advising — requires a license.”

It elaborated: “If people are writing you with diabetic specific questions you are no longer just providing information — you are counseling. You need a license to provide this service.”

Nowhere on Cooksey’s blog, diabetes-warrior.net, did he claim to have professional credentials. He didn’t say he was a doctor or nutritionist. He didn’t charge for giving advice. He was just a guy who found a healthy formula for himself and wanted to share it.

Nevertheless, Cooksey discontinued his advice column after hearing from the state. He also initiated legal action to secure his right to do what he’d been doing. With the help of the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties organization, he’s finally prevailed.

The board recently adopted new guidelines making it clear that people can give ordinary diet advice without a license.

“North Carolina cannot require someone like Steve to be a state-licensed dietician any more than it could require Dear Abby to be a state-licensed psychologist,” Institute for Justice attorney Jeff Rowes said.

That’s good. While it’s important that people who are providing professional medical services maintain the proper credentials and comply with licensing requirements, laymen should not be held to the same standards. Otherwise, Grandma’s cure-for-what-ails-you would violate some rule or regulation.

People love to give advice, which usually amounts to endorsing a treatment that “always worked” for members of the family. Listeners take it with a grain of salt and usually know when it’s time to seek professional care.

Steve Cooksey may have been unusually passionate about his path to better health, but he was still just an amateur who’d had the good fortune to find what worked for him. By sharing his story, he may have helped some other people, or maybe not.

Whatever the case, he didn’t do anything that should have made the licensing board ill.

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