Who's Afraid of Calorie Counts?


Hit & Run commenters and several bloggers, including Ezra Klein and Kevin Drum, take issue with my argument, in my recent column about menu regulation, that "if customers really were clamoring for conspicuous calorie counts, restaurants would provide them voluntarily." Their main point is that the first restaurant to voluntarily post calorie counts on its menu boards as a way of attracting weight-conscious diners would instead scare customers away by emphasizing how fattening its dishes are, giving restaurants that kept nutritional information inconspicuous a competitive advantage. There may be some truth to this. Yet the fear of repelling diners with colossal calorie counts has not prevented the big fast food chains from voluntarily providing detailed nutritional information, both online and in their restaurants. Furthermore, some of them make this information more conspicuous than others, putting it on wrappers and counter mats near the cash register, for example, instead of on a poster in the back near the rest rooms. As I noted in the column, Subway makes a point of calling attention to calorie (and fat) counts, displaying them prominently at the point of sale and marketing part of its menu as healthier and less fattening than its competitors' offerings. Clearly, there is some demand for this sort of thing, but even at Subway the vast majority of the customers (nearly nine out of 10, to judge by the New York City health department's survey) do not make use of the nutritional information.

Although Kevin Drum disagrees with my claim that there isn't much demand for in-your-face calorie numbers, he adds, "I suspect that Sullum is on stronger ground when he says that calorie disclosure laws probably won't work." He notes that mandating nutritional information on packaged foods "hasn't had any noticeable impact on aggregate calorie consumption," which in fact increased after the requirement was imposed. But if people do not actually make use of government-mandated nutritional information, in what sense are they demanding it? Mainly in the sense that, when asked by a poll taker whether they support a purportedly health-promoting, information-disseminating policy that virtually everyone but a few libertarian nutcases seems to think is utterly unobjectionable, they will say they favor it too. But that does not necessarily mean they will change their eating habits once calorie counts are up on the menu board.

Even if some of them will, that prospect does not justify the use of force to impose an unfunded, business-disrupting menu mandate on restaurant owners who do not think it is worth the cost and effort. Interventions like New York's menu regulation and the proposed California law are not aimed at preventing fraud, or even requiring the disclosure of pertinent information (since the fast food chains already make this information available to people who are interested in it). Instead the menu mandates are aimed at prodding people to make what politicians and public health officials consider to be better food choices, which to my mind is not a legitimate function of government.