Next up in Nutrition: "Targets" for Salt, a Sin Tax on Soda

Next up in Nutrition: "Targets" for Salt, a Sin Tax on Soda

Boy, do restaurant operators wish they could accurately declare “Only in New York” when it comes to food and nutrition issues. Now New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden wants to exert a measure of control over how the food served to restaurant customers tastes, via regulations on its salt content. And New York State Gov. David Paterson wants to gain leverage over what restaurant customers choose to drink by imposing an 18 percent tax on soft drinks. Both initiatives are framed as health-related measures, and you’d better get ready to do battle on these issues in your town if these two guys get their way in New York.

These new proposals comes hot on the heels of two recent New York City Department of Health initiatives that caught on nationally in a hurry: zero trans fats in restaurant food and mandatory posting of nutritional information on restaurant menus. Those regulations quickly changed the way many restaurants do business, and not just in New York. Trans fats have almost disappeared from most restaurant kitchens nationwide, and menu labeling has already become mandatory in other jurisdictions besides New York City. Already on board: Philadelphia, the state of California, King County (Seattle) in Washington State and a scattering of others. Pending menu labeling bills before several state legislatures—Indiana and Massachusetts—should lead to more laws soon.

Menu labeling seems so inevitable that the National Restaurant Association is supporting a national bill (Labeling Education and Nutrition, i.e., the LEAN Act) as a way to stave off the specter of a jumble of conflicting local regulations. The NRA now hopes to instead wind up with a single menu-labeling standard that would be uniform nationwide.

So what’s up next from the highly activist New York City Health Department? Tough new restrictions on salt.

“Today, most people eat nearly twice the recommended daily amount of salt, and most of us don't even realize it,” wrote New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden in a recent op-ed. “But too much salt kills. It increases blood pressure, which increases heart disease and stroke, the leading causes of preventable death in this country. Almost 80% of the salt we eat comes from processed and packaged foods and from restaurant meals.”

For starters, the New York City Health Department is asking for a voluntary annual reduction of salt content of 5 percent per year, until salt use is half of what it is now. “Our proposal—which has the support of many leading health organizations—calls on restaurants and food manufacturers to work collectively,” Frieden says. Work collectively how? He’s not saying right now. There will be no regulations initially, just “targets.”

But won’t the taste of food served in restaurants be less vibrant than what customers are used to? Not to worry, Frieden says. “Sodium levels will fall so gradually we won't even notice a difference.”

We admire his optimism, but we’ll have to wait and see how this salt-reduction initiative plays out. But we’re thinking that operators will notice a big difference right away if they have to slap an 18 percent tax on non-diet soft drinks as per Paterson’s proposal. So far, the mechanics of who-would-pay-the-tax-to-whom have yet to be worked out, but Gov. Paterson has been careful to frame his proposal as an “obesity tax,” not as a way patch a leak in the New York State budget.

It’s not clear if obesity would indeed be fought if this proposal goes through. However, the measure could indeed suppress demand for an item that is a key revenue generator for most restaurants, particularly those that do not have a liquor license. On a percentage basis, non-diet soft drinks are probably the highest-margin item operators sell. An 18 percent tax could easily cause patrons to order a beverage with lesser margins or even opt for tap water.

The danger to non-New York operators is that these two initiatives could conceivably catch on as rapidly as zero trans fat and menu labeling did, even though residents elsewhere in the U.S. may not be as troubled by obesity and diabetes as they apparently are in New York. In fact, you may be saying, “Hey, I thought the no-trans-fat and fast food nutrition information were supposed to wipe out obesity and other health problems in New York City. How come they have to go after salt and soft drinks now, too?”

Indeed, if you look these four food initiatives collectively, it seems that New Yorkers are particularly prone to obesity and diabetes and are unable to exercise even a little self-restraint on their own. From a national perspective, maybe tailoring food regulations so as to constrict the nutritional choices of the poorest food decision makers in one particular market is wrong. Why not explore options that would encourage obese New Yorkers to get off the couch, get some exercise and then eat healthfully on their own? Personal responsibility for lifestyle choices seems to get the job done in the rest of the country. Maybe they could do a better job of it in New York.