Compelled Disclosure of Food Characteristics--Posner
Last week New York City began enforcing an ordinance that requires fast-food chains to post on menus and menu boards the number of calories in each menu item, in the same type size as the item itself. (The ordinance is rather complicated, see www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/cdp/calorie_compliance_guide.pdf, visited July 24, 2008; my summary is a simplification.) The stated purpose of the ordinance is to reduce obesity.
The ordinance will be criticized as being at once unnecessary, because information about calorie content can be conveyed without requiring that it be printed in large type on the menu (an alternative would be publication on the chain‚Äôs website, or the posting of a separate notice in the restaurant), and paternalistic, because people concerned about their weight have the incentive and ability to inform themselves about the number of calories that they consume. The ordinance may also be ineffectual, because most people eat most of their food at home rather than in fast-food outlets; anticompetitive, because small chains will incur the same costs as large ones to certify the caloric content of their offerings; blind to the effect of competition in forcing retail firms, including restaurants, to disclose whatever information will give them an advantage in competing for calorie-conscious consumers; unhelpful, because it will contribute to information overload on consumers bombarded with all sorts of warnings; and not based on a responsible cost-benefit analysis.
These are legitimate criticisms, but they may not be conclusive. A law aimed at reducing obesity would be paternalistic if obesity did not produce external costs, but it does, because obese people consume a disproportionate amount of medical resources, and there is extensive public and private subsidization of medical expenses (private through insurance pools that are unable or forbidden to identify and reject high-risk insureds). However, the size of the externality is in question, because obese people die on average at a younger age than thin people, and so consume medical resources for fewer years on average than thin people do.
While some obesity has strictly physical causes, most is due to poor eating habits and lack of exercise and is therefore treatable by changes in behavior. If the necessary changes can be induced by low-cost informational warnings, the result is likely to be a reduction in the external costs of obesity. However, government programs designed to educate consumers in the causes and consequences of obesity have not been effective.
Fast food is one of the factors that is responsible for the obesity "epidemic" in the United States and other wealthy countries. Economic studies find that weight rises with lower relative prices of fast-food and full-service restaurants and the wider availability of such restaurants and hence the lower full price of eating at them.
Partly because some of the costs of obesity are external, competition among restaurants or other food providers cannot be counted upon to optimize caloric intake. An obese person will not eat less in order to reduce the social costs of medical subsidies. It is not even clear that competition will produce the caloric intake desired by consumers for purely selfish reasons of health, medical expense, and appearance. Firms are reluctant to advertise relative safety, because it alerts the consumer to the existence of danger. Cigarette and auto companies were traditionally reluctant to advertise safer cigarettes and safer cars, as that might get consumers thinking and as a result induce substitution away from the product. Prominent display of calorie numbers might persuade consumers to avoid fast-food chains rather than to look for the chain with the lowest calorie numbers. This is especially likely because the high-calorie items on the menu tend to be the tastiest. Inexpensive food rich in butter, cream, sugar, and egg yolk generally tastes better than inexpensive food low in those ingredients; low-calorie foods that taste good tend to use expensive ingredients.
For people who want to be thin, there is an abundance of information that enables them to adopt a healthful diet. Neither ignorance nor externalities seem to be the important forces in the growth of obesity. More important may be exploitation by food sellers of people's addictive tendencies, which have biological roots. In the "ancestral environment," to which human beings are biologically adapted, a taste for high-calorie foods had great survival value. As Becker has emphasized in academic work, the choice of an addictive life style may be freely chosen and the life style itself may be socially productive and personally satisfying; Becker and I, for example, are addicted to work. But many obese persons became addicted to high-calorie foods as children, and a child's choice of an addictive life style is not an authentic choice, to which society need defer. Nor can parents be assumed to be the perfect agents of their children, protecting them from unwise choices; it takes a lot of parental work to keep children physically active in the era of the video game, and away from rich foods. So there is a case to be made for public efforts to reduce obesity.
The significance of the New York City ordinance lies in its requiring that calorie numbers be printed next to the food items on menus and menu boards and in large type. The purpose is less to inform than to frighten. Psychologists have shown (what is anyway pretty obvious) that people respond more to information that is presented to them in a dramatic, memorable form than to information that is presented as an abstraction or is merely remembered rather than being pushed in one's face; that is the theory beyond requiring reckless drivers to watch videotapes of accidents and requiring cigarette ads to contain fearsome threats. It is one thing to know that a Big Mac has a lot of calories, and another thing to have the number emblazoned on the menu board, next to a mouth-watering picture. The warnings--for that is what the display of high calorie numbers amounts to--may create fear of high-calorie foods, not only in fast-food chains but generally. If so, and if as a result there is less obesity, there will be a reduction in medical expense and possibly a gain in happiness if, as one suspects, thin people are on average happier than fat people.
No one can know in advance the net effects of the ordinance. Its effect on obesity may be small, and it will impose costs of compliance on the fast-food chains subject to them and as a result cause the price of fast food to rise, though perhaps by a trivial amount--and the increase in price will contribute, albeit modestly, to efforts to reduce obesity. An increase in general education, by tending to reduce people‚Äôs discount rates, may have a greater effect than the ordinance in checking obesity, because the ill effects of obesity are greater in the long term than in the short term and education tends to reduce discount rates.
The argument for the New York City ordinance thus comes down to the argument for social experimentation generally: that it will yield valuable information about the effects of public interventions designed to alter life styles. I therefore favor the ordinance, though without great optimism that it will contribute significantly to a reduction in obesity.