Activists, local government bureaucrats and federal officials continue to come up with dubious ways to promote health and reduce obesity. These approaches are either supported by meager or conflicting evidence or they are so intrusive that Americans will find them intolerable.
Consider the top three initiatives favored by the self-styled food police: mandatory calorie counts on chain restaurant menus, punitive taxes on certain foods and limits on "junk food" advertising. This push for Big Brother to monitor and influence our food consumption comes from a coalition of a handful of academics, a network of NGO activist groups, nanny-state government bureaucrats and a smattering of food writers. The taxes and bans on advertising underscore how out of touch these activists are with the American conviction that individuals, rather than governments, are ultimately responsible for behavior.
Interventions that confuse plausibility with provability or that fly in the face of evidence are commonly found in the food police handbook.
Consider, for example, the ObamaCare-mandated requirement that chain restaurants post calorie counts on menu boards. It isn't all that intrusive, but studies show it just isn't effective, especially among those it is meant to protect. In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity in February, NYU School of Medicine professor Dr. Brian Elbel and his colleagues studied receipts from inner city kids who ate at restaurants with the menu boards both before and after they were posted as required by law in New York City, as well as from children in Newark, N.J., where calories were not posted as prominently. The study, funded by Yale University, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, found that calorie counts did not affect kids' choices.
The problem Americans face is not insufficient information, but insufficient self-control. Many of us appear to be unable to balance short-term gains (the pleasure of a double-bacon-cheeseburger and fries) with long-term costs (obesity and its devastating health consequences).
But data doesn't deter the ideologues. After all, to implement their puritanical measures, they're spending someone else's money.
Another major priority for the food police is the restriction on the advertising of foods they don't want us to eat. Anti-obesity crusaders like to demonize whatever they've decided is "bad" as "junk food." But when eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet, there really is no such thing as junk food. A ban on advertising to kids is appropriate for tobacco products, where any use of the product is injurious, and perhaps some activists believe that any consumption of foods they dislike is tantamount to smoking. But any nutritionist worth his sodium chloride will confirm that your grandmother was wise in telling you just to do things in moderation.
Taxes on sugar-containing soda have been regarded by some politicians as a panacea for obesity. But we know from experience that small taxes on sugar-containing soda don't work: The deposit that we pay on every bottle and can — which most people forfeit when they discard the container — doesn't deter them from making the purchase. Conversely, jacking up the tax to cigarette levels would certainly cut down on consumption, but it would enrage consumers. That doesn't faze some amateur food cops. Mark Bittman, the New York Times columnist who knows everything except what he's talking about, is thinking bigger. Much bigger. He wants huge federal taxes on "unhealthful foods … like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks." And because federal bureaucrats know best, "the resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available."
What is especially rich about Bittman's latest rant in favor of a more authoritarian nanny-state is that he is on record as categorically opposing the use of modern genetic improvement technologies that can actually make food safer, more environmentally friendly and more affordable — and that have already done so. Much appreciated by farmers for their reliability, most corn, canola and soybeans grown in this country are now genetically engineered varieties. I guess greater productivity isn't a big deal if you can just get Uncle Sam to subsidize the things you like and tax the things you don't.
In their zeal, activists have once again failed to recognize the Law of Unintended Consequences. In a world where parents — not the government — are primarily responsible for children's behavior, adverts for even the fattiest, saltiest, most sugary and nutritionally bankrupt foods can play a role in a child's development. That is, when a kid in the cross-hairs of marketers demands a "naughty" food, parents have a unique opportunity to teach moderation, self-discipline and how to distinguish marketing from information or education — a teaching moment.
Research by University College London psychology professor Adrian Furnham shows that children as young as three are able to distinguish advertising from normal television programming. But in the world patrolled by the food police, children would not be exposed to ads until they are 18, the age at which activists seem to think people magically become discriminating and able to make rational choices in their own best interest. Either that or they really want a total ban on promotion of so-called "junk foods," and banning ads to minors is only the first step.
We are as concerned as anyone about obesity's effects on public health, but we believe that governmental, taxpayer-funded approaches to it should be evidence-based, cost-effective and non-authoritarian. Just as too much candy and soda tends to "crowd out" more nutrient-rich and less calorie-dense foods and drinks, flawed approaches can crowd out better ideas. Are politicians coming up with those better ideas? Fat chance.
Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.