June 5 2012
Carrie L. Lukas
Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s push to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks in New York City made headlines last week, but it’s really just another dog-bites-man political story. For years, government officials from Washington D.C. down to local school districts have been busily writing regulations and levying new taxes in an attempt to control what Americans eat.
The public be warned: History shows that Americans aren’t likely to lose weight as a result of such efforts. We will, however, shed real freedom and be left with a trimmed-down economy. Bloomberg himself let slip why the measure is unlikely to meaningfully change New Yorkers’ calorie consumption. In beating back a question suggesting the ban would inappropriately limit consumer choice, he scoffed, “Your argument, I guess, could be that it’s a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32 ounce.”
The Mayor is right. Those seeking a big gulp of soda will be able to get one. This new rule wouldn’t limit costumers to just one drink purchase or forbid free refills. That means customers who want more will have to pay extra for two cups or make another trip to the soda dispenser. A good follow up question to the Mayor would have been, what’s the point, then, of imposing the ban at all?
Bloomberg explained that rather than just hand-wringing about stubbornly high rates of obesity, citizens expect their leaders to “do something.” The Mayor seems to assume New Yorkers won’t mind that that “something” is little more than an empty gesture.
The truth is most of governments’ efforts to cajole Americans to eat healthier have had little success. Policymakers have forced restaurants to display calorie information on the assumption that informed customers would opt for lower-calorie items. Yet research suggests that most patrons ignore the information, and those who actually bother to review calorie counts don’t make making healthier decisions as a result.
Washington also has expanded school-based feeding programs, in part to help fight obesity by giving kids healthier food. Analysts have now learned that many kids effectively have two breakfasts, one at school and one at home, as a result, ironically adding to their weight problems. Even so-called “sin taxes” on soda and sugar are a poor method of discouraging obesity. Studies show that soda taxes miss their target since obese people tend to already opt for diet sodas, and unsurprisingly, some states with these tax regimes also have the largest obesity problems.
Americans are used to government regulations and tax schemes failing to work as intended. If all this food regulation were just a waste of time, Americans might shrug it off. Yet this government meddling sucks resources from our under-nourished economy, aggravating our nation’s truly pressing national ailment: joblessness.
Mayor Bloomberg argues that businesses hit with the ban won’t suffer because they can charge costumers more for smaller drinks and find other ways to make up for lost sales. Maybe. But the changes they make will also affect their suppliers who, if the ban works at all, will move less product and have to reduce workers and production. Businesses will also lose time and money making sense of the regulations. Coffee houses will have to take care to follow the new guidelines to see if their baristas’ latest concoctions safely fall under the “latte” genre, and therefore can be sold in unlimited quantities, or if they’re plain old sweetened coffee, thus making them illegal in containers larger than 16 ounces.
This is just another of the reams of regulations that are a growing burden on business, especially small businesses. When testifying before Congress, Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants (which operates the Hardees and Carl’s Jr. restaurant chains), explained how such regulations affect franchises and small food industry businesses. He warned that the menu labeling requirements in ObamaCare alone would cost his company $1.5 million, about a fifth of what it invested in starting up new restaurants in 2010. Outlawing large sodas and juice drinks may seem relatively minor, but even a small change in income can have a significant impact on small stores and restaurants with slim margins, and end up discouraging job creation (job loss may also results) at some city establishments.
Of course, Mr. Bloomberg’s regulations are sure to create a few new jobs: New York City will be seeking bureaucrats to ensure no one sneaks regular soda into those illegally-large diet soda containers. That too creates real costs, the greatest of which is dignity. How is it that America, land of the free and home of the brave, is now a nation of food police dictating how large a Coke you can buy?