We have entered the eating season, a time when fresh-baked goods appear on counters at work and families and friends get together to raise a glass and enjoy good food and good company. But this year, our indulgence is likely to be more fraught, as the government continues its intrusion into what we choose to eat and drink.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands out for his attempts to control what New Yorkers consume. He has banned the sale of certain large sugary drinks, required fast-food restaurants to post calorie information and restricted the use of trans fats by the city's 24,000 food establishments. But he is far from alone.
North Carolina lawmakers recently reversed a ban on restaurants serving rare hamburgers, but they are still required to warn you about the potential for food poisoning if you dare order your burger rare. Children in San Francisco must cross the Bay Bridge to Oakland if they want a free toy with their chicken nuggets thanks to the Board of Supervisors' ban on free toys in fast-food children's meals. Several states tightly control where Americans can purchase liquor, and only 10 states allow the sale of raw milk for human consumption in retail stores.
In addition to onerous regulations and outright bans, states use tax policy to coerce Americans into eating healthier foods. The notion of a "sin tax" has moved beyond cigarettes and alcohol, with Arkansas, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee levying special taxes on soda. Several cities across the country are now considering similar efforts.
The federal government is also studying ways to control Americans' food choices. During President Obama's first term, the Food and Drug Administration explored regulations on food advertisements as well as limits on certain ingredients, such as salt and sugar, in packaged food and restaurant meals. The FDA is currently considering even more detailed labeling requirements for food packaging.
Officials justify such efforts as necessary to promote public health, as if obesity is a regulatory failure, not a personal health condition. Common sense suggests otherwise. After all, in New York, people can still consume an extra-large pizza, even if their beverage order is limited to 15 ounces. Even Bloomberg acknowledged his drink ban's futility when he said that customers "can always buy two sodas." New Yorkers can also select beverages not covered by the ban — like high-fat milk-based beverages or alcohol. I'm all for healthy choices, but they need to be made by individuals, not governments.
Research confirms these government efforts are generally ineffective. A 2009 study on New Yorkers who ate fast food found that only half even noticed the government-required calorie information displayed on menu boards. Of those, only 28% said the information influenced their ordering, and researchers found that the customers who noticed the calorie information didn't order food with fewer calories than those who were oblivious. And those four states with soda-specific sin taxes? They rank among the most obese states in the nation. So much for the government's war on obesity.
Another problem with government meddling is that it can backfire. For instance, the American Heart Assn. warned that trans-fat bans can lead restaurants to replace trans fats with shortening that is high in saturated fat, which, while better than trans fats in some respects, is hardly health food. Researchers at Cornell University observed that while soda taxes succeeded in encouraging people to temporarily reduce their soda consumption, beer sales increased.
Late-night comedians have found fodder in Bloomberg's nanny-state antics, but these initiatives are no laughing matter for the food industry. When the trans-fat ban was passed in New York, some ethnic restaurants and small bakeries were hard hit. The owner of one New York bakery told the New York Times that he had estimated that his costs had gone up by about 20% when he had to eliminate trans fats from his baked goods.
These establishments lose not only money but time: Under the trans-fat ban, restaurants are required to submit ingredient details for each recipe to ensure each product's trans-fat content doesn't exceed the new limits. It isn't hard to imagine how business owners might use this extra time and money if they weren't busy satisfying Bloomberg's regulatory predilections. And is it a good use of city resources to add an additional layer of monitoring?
Americans don't need higher food prices and more government workers enforcing useless regulations. Yet there's a larger issue at stake. These initiatives are symptoms of a government that knows no bounds. Americans must ask themselves: Do we really want government bureaucrats in charge of how much soda we can drink and what amount of salt can go into a can of soup? Is this really fitting for a country of free citizens with a limited government?
Julie Gunlock is director of the Women for Food Freedom project at the Independent Women's Forum.