Medical ethicist Art Caplan joined BPR Thursday for his weekly segment, Ask the Ethicist. Caplan is head of the division of medical ethics at NYU's LangoneMedical Center. Caplan talked about a Texas agriculture head who wants deep-fat fryers in cafeterias, the ethics behind state-sponsored executions, and the state of Hawaii making 21 the legal cigarette-smoking age.

Questions are paraphrased, and Caplans responses are edited where noted [...].

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller wants to restore deep fryers in Texas school cafeterias. Does this undo a lot of the good work we've been doing to make school lunches healthier?

I wouldn't say we're rushing to healthier school lunches. Slowly people are trying to get more fruit and vegetables in [lunches]. It’s obviously a bad decision because you certainly can impose standards for health if you're going to have the school lunch program.

How important is it for schools and school districts to have a say on lunch menus, as opposed to top-down edicts?

I don't think local control is important at all. [...] We sort of celebrate it and cheer it, but we don't need it when it comes to school lunches. I think local control is limited. [...] You don't let them teach arithmetic using an abacus. You know, there are standards that get set. [...] I think, again, you set your standards at the state level,  [They're conflating] school lunches with the value of freedom. Freedom? The kid's six!

What do you think of the method of execution that potentially awaits convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

Execution — the way we're doing it, botching it, not having the right chemicals and training, [...] even if you're executing murderers and rapists and terrorists — still looks inhumane. The Supermax [prison], the evidence shows, is equally cruel, because you go crazy. [...] You can't put somebody in those conditions because we know what the outcome is — they lose their minds! [...] In our society what we try not to do is impose barbaric punishment. We don't whip 'em, we don't stone 'em. [...] What's the point of driving them insane? They don't understand what's going on after a while anyway.

The state of Hawaii has gotten closer to establishing 21 as the legal age for tobacco use. Good idea?

I do think it's a good idea. I think that generally we know that smoking’s really bad for you, and the earlier you start the worse it is for you. [...] The message is what I care about. Whether it stops kids who are smoking or intent on smoking I doubt. I think the public health message on the age thing about smoking is just a public health message. It really isn't intended to [put] a dent in smoking levels.

So it's more about the message than whether or not it prevents kids from smoking?

I don't really think that [prohibition] is the issue. [If you say], 'be careful here, this stuff is really bad for you.' Yes. [...] We did a big drop and it's been holding steady but, [...] 22, 24 percent of us still smoke, and that number hasn't been dropping. And kids still smoke.

And ads still appear in poor neighborhoods.

That’s where the fight has shifted. Smoking and drinking ads tend to go to poor neighborhoods

Chinese scientists have faced some criticism after they announced performing new procedures involving DNA in human embryos. What do you think of this?

It's a new technique for modifying DNA, it's called "crisper." [...] Like a giant scissors, and you can snip DNA at exact location and you can put in something else. [..]. Now you got this thing that lets you really make a lot of changes all at once.

And why would you make the changes?

You could try to change an embryo. [...] You’re changing genes that would be inherited by children. [...] Now, if you do it in an embryo it's going to go on for future generations: [...] stronger, faster, taller, gabbier, whatever traits that people want.

And the critique — besides the moral question — is that the science may not be there like these scientists are claiming?

They grabbed a bunch of human embryos, they did this editing technique, they actually produced nothing [useful]. [...] The Chinese paper, scientifically, was not very interesting, that's why it didn't appear in any major journal. But the ethical issues are here.

>>Art Caplan is head of the division of medical ethics at NYU's Langone Medical Center. He's also host of the podcast Everyday Ethics. You can hear him weekly on BPR.