Readers may be wondering: The New York City mandatory menu labeling regulation? Didn’t a federal judge just shoot that one down? One did, late last fall. That particular version of the proposal would have applied only to restaurant chains that had already made nutritional information available to customers in other formats. That wasn’t going to fly under federal law.
The judge’s ruling caused the New York City Board of Health to go back and simply rewrite the regulation to apply to all chain restaurants, whether they had previously made nutritional information available or not. Thus on March 31, 2008, any chain restaurant with more than 15 units nationally—about 10 percent of New York City restaurants qualify—must list nutritional information on its menus or menu boards located in its New York City units. That includes chains like Chipotle, Quiznos, Wendy’s and White Castle, all of which had removed nutritional information from web sites and all other locations so they wouldn’t be affected by the initial version of this regulation.
As you’d expect, the self-appointed food police at the Center for Science in the Public Interest are ecstatic.
“It’s going to get a lot easier to make informed choices at New York City’s chain restaurants this spring,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan. “At fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, and at table-service chains like Olive Garden and Applebee’s, consumers will have one key piece of nutrition information—calories—to help them make the right choices for themselves and their families. We expect that many more cities, counties, and states will require menu labeling once they see how easy it is for these chains to list calories on menus.”
Easy? The New York State Restaurant Association points out that a “consumer buying a sandwich with five items or toppings (such as bread, meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato) can order it 120 different ways, Someone presented with 15 items for a sub or sandwich can order it 1.3 trillion ways, making accurate nutrition labeling virtually impossible for restaurants.”
Dr. Thomas Frieden, New York City health commissioner, think the benefits to the public outweigh the costs to restaurateurs.
“Obesity and diabetes are the only major health problems that are getting worse in New York City,” Frieden pointed out. “Today, the Board of Health passed a regulation that will help New Yorkers make healthier choices about what to eat, living longer, healthier lives as a result.”
We can understand his concern. A 2005 Community Health Survey found that 54 percent of adults in New York City were overweight or obese. The Department of Health argues “calorie information provided at the time of food selection would enable New Yorkers to make more informed, healthier choices.” We hope that’s how it works out, since the Health Department estimates that this single regulation “could reduce the number of people who suffer from obesity by 150,000 over the next five years, preventing more than 30,000 cases of diabetes.”
Reaching these numbers, however, seems like a mighty tall order. Nutritional labeling has been mandatory on grocery products for 10 years, a period in which obesity rates continued to rise. At the supermarket level, the correlation between nutritional labeling and health outcome appears, so far, to be inverse.
Which may be why they’re attacking the problem in a different way in New Mexico. Democratic legislator Gail Chasey has introduced a bill that calls for a one percent tax on video games and television sets. Proceeds from the tax, estimated at $4 million per year, would fund outdoor education programs. They’re calling it the “No Child Left Inside” bill.
This effort is just one part of a patchwork of local, state and regional back-to-nature movements operating under the “No Child Left Inside” umbrella. The idea is that if you get people, especially children out of their rooms and into the outdoors, obesity might just take care of itself. There’s no discussion about away-from-home diets in this movement, and restaurant operators are not seen as a cause of the obesity problem. Electronics companies are the ones being singled out, and the purpose of this bill is to tax part of the problem to fund the solution.
In New Mexico, the legislation is backed by a coalition of 12 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. What got their attention was a series of studies conducted by New Mexico’s State Parks Division that collectively found that although 80 percent of the state’s school age children live within a half-hour drive of a state park, less than half had ever visited one. Backers cite other studies linking “the increasing amount of time children spend watching television or playing video games to lower academic scores, obesity and increased attention-deficit disorder.”
“The bill proposes levying a one percent excise tax on the purchase of TVs, video games and video game equipment and would create the ‘Leave No Child Inside’ fund to receive those revenues,” Sierra Club spokesman Michael Casaus said. He noted that one-quarter of New Mexico’s children are obese and overweight. Slightly over half finish high school.
“The goals of the bill are to improve the academic performances of our kids, to promote a more healthy lifestyle and to provide our children with outdoor learning experiences, using out state parks and public lands as classrooms,” Casaus proclaimed.” He added that video games, video game gear and television sets were chosen for taxation because medical studies have linked them with obesity and poor school performance.
But it’s not just environmental groups that are on board with “No Child Left Inside.” Many conservative groups, as well as members of the Bush Cabinet and President George W. Bush himself, have embraced it, too.
So what seems more likely to you: that obesity rates will fall faster in New York City, because nutritional information will be available on 10 percent of restaurant menus, or in New Mexico, where kids are putting down their Nintendo Wiis and Xbox2s to go hiking in the mountains?