Laws promoting healthy diets see some results
Cities and counties throughout the country are passing ordinances aimed at reducing obesity and related health problems. At least some of those laws are changing consumer behavior and are being replicated at state and federal levels.
New York began requiring restaurants to post nutrition information of food on menus in 2008, and several other local governments passed similar laws until Congress approved a law last year that requires restaurants with 20 or more outlets to post calorie counts on menus. In 2009, New York’s health department surveyed 1,600 people and found that 25 percent said the nutrition information affected what they purchased. Also, 36 percent of chain restaurant customers said they always consider calories when making food purchases, an increase from 29 percent before the regulation. Also, Starbucks consumers in New York began switching to lower-calorie food options after the menu labeling law was passed, according to a study released in January 2010 by the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Santa Clara County, Calif., passed a menu labeling law in 2008, and in 2010 it passed a law barring fast-food restaurants from including toys in children’s meals with excessive calories, sodium, fat or added sweeteners. In November, San Francisco passed a similar law.
Studies have not yet shown how the new law is affecting children’s food choices, says Santa Clara’s Health Officer Marty Fenstersheib, but he thinks the law is prompting restaurants to provide more healthy choices. “Burger King and McDonald’s have started offering low-fat milk and apple sticks,” he says.
Fenstersheib says local health laws build momentum for change on a larger scale. He points to Santa Clara County’s menu labeling law, which preceded the state’s and the federal government’s labeling laws. “The actions we take locally have a great impact on the actions that are taken by the state and even by the federal government,” he says.
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The restaurant and food industry, along with advocates for limited government, oppose laws like Santa Clara County’s ban on toys in children’s meals. They also contend that some of the measures, such as soda taxes that Baltimore and Philadelphia unsuccessfully tried to levy recently, are aimed at generating revenue more than improving health, says Justin Wilson, senior analyst for the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom. “Taxing food is about the worst thing you can do,” Wilson says. “It’s a regressive tax.”
Anne Martin is a Chicago-based freelance writer.