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Akst: A little welcome nannyism as McDonalds starts posting calorie counts

McDonalds in Southampton. (June 8, 2012)

McDonalds in Southampton. (June 8, 2012) Credit: Ian J. Stark

Is it news to anyone that the food at McDonalds is fattening? Maybe not, yet it may be harder for patrons to repress this troubling knowledge thanks to a decision by the chain to post calorie counts in all 14,000 of its U.S. eateries. And surely it's not chance that McDonalds announced the change at the same time it announced some new, more healthful menu items.

Eventually, McDonalds will have company. Obamacare, a derisive term that even its advocates have begun to embrace, will require that all chains of more than 20 outlets list calories on their menus, thought there's no schedule yet for when this will happen.

Can all this really help? Maybe. Studies of smaller such efforts have produced modest results. One study, of Starbucks outlets in New York City, found that customers bought 6 percent fewer calories after the chain's shops in the city started posting calorie counts. In the Seattle area, a calorie-posting requirement lowered fast-food entrees by just 19 calories 18 months after the rule took effect. That doesn't sound like much, but for a customer eating fast food daily, 19 calories less would leave them two pounds lighter each year, and 20 pounds lighter after a decade.

But there's no one magic bullet for taking down obesity; a lot of changes will be required, and few of them can be made by individuals (if it were easier to be thin, more of us would be).

To me, a big part of what's interesting about all this is the role of New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who has turned the city into the nation's biggest public health lab. He's conducting what may well be the most aggressive government campaign in the country to make people healthier. New York was the first U.S. city to require fast-food chains to post nutrition info. The city also pioneered in banning trans fats, and rid the city's bars and restaurants of smoking. You could even look at Bloomberg's efforts to impose congestion pricing--a rush hour fee--on cars entering Manhattan, and the city's controversial stop-and-frisk program, aimed at suppressing guns, as part of the same program. Most recently, Bloomberg is pushing a ban on large-size sodas (and has previously advocated banning the use of food stamps for sugary drinks). Bike lanes, despite a lot of grumbling from change-averse New Yorkers, have been expanded.

Less noticed is the city's big public-school push against obesity. Starting in 2003 the city launched various efforts, including lower calorie school lunches and obesity training for school nurses, and the Bloomberg administration has published a report claiming to have reduced the percentage of obese K-8 students from 21.9 percent 20.7 percent in five years.

The mayor has also pushed the city's Latch On NYC initiative to encourage breast feeding and discourage the use of baby formula (a bunch of hospitals have agreed not give out the stuff unless asked). And some tough anti-smoking ads, coupled with lofty taxes, appear to have helped reduce smoking.

To some people, this will all smack of intolerable nannyism, but that strikes me as silly. Government policies encourage all kinds of things, including, in the past, suburban sprawl and tobacco growing. Why not encourage some healthy behaviors? And why should the whole business of encouraging behavior be left to those with a profit motive? We've made a fetish of individual choice in recent years, yet the architecture of our choices is left to those whose interests seriously diverge from our own. As long as nobody's right are wantonly curtailed, government should do what it can to help us make ourselves healthier.

So I think the mayor is onto something in all this, although I also think stop-and-frisk, while well-intentioned, is a bad program and has the potential to undo a lot of his good work. Anyway, here's what he has to say about McDonalds:

"Obesity is the second-leading cause of preventable death after tobacco, and is the only major public health issue in America that is actually getting worse. In 2008 New York City pioneered the requirement that chain restaurants post calorie counts and one year after our law went into effect, not only did customers say they used the information to make decisions but those customers purchased fewer calories than their counterparts. The decision by McDonald’s to post calorie counts in all U.S. restaurants will give consumers more information about the choices they make, and I want to thank McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson for his leadership on this important public health issue."