Getting accurate information to market

In many ways, one of the functions of government is to establish systems whereby accurate information can get out into the marketplace. What people do with the information most of the time should be none of the government’s business, but the information should be publicly available. Along those lines, Abraham Lincoln showed his faith that the public would choose wisely when given accurate information when he said: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

There is now an opportunity to put this faith into practice, because a bill is pending in Washington that would require restaurant chains that have more than 20 outlets conspicuously to list the number of calories that are found in their regular menu items. We should all contact our representatives in Washington in support of this measure. California already has a similar law on its books that is scheduled to go into effect in 2011.

Once it is passed into law nationally, that should be sufficient. We do not need — nor want — to establish the “food police,” although there should be some sanctions for knowingly posting false information. And we should not impose extra taxes on high-calorie, high-fat or sugary foods. Just placing accurate information conspicuously in the marketplace is sufficient.

What would happen if this occurs? As a matter of course, one restaurant chain that serves lower calorie foods, whether fast food or otherwise, will soon take advantage of the situation, and begin to advertise that their hamburgers, tacos, etc. taste just as good or better than their competitor’s, but have only two-thirds the saturated fat or calories. Or whatever.

Will everyone stop going to the places with the less healthy choices? No, at least not at the beginning. Obviously this action will affect some people more than others. And I acknowledge that the lower fat and slightly higher cost experiment at McDonald’s with the McLean’s burgers about a decade ago was not successful. But slowly people’s awareness and understanding have been changing. Those changes will continue, and this legislation will hasten the process. Soon not only will it be fashionable to choose more healthy meals, it will also become more generally accepted.

Why would a Libertarian favor this legislation? Why not simply rely upon adults to make nutrition decisions for themselves and their children? In fact, some of my friends said that if I publish this column they would figuratively seek to revoke my Libertarian card. The answer is that I do it because obesity is expensive. And the cost of obesity to all of us is increasing quickly, to the degree that today it accounts for about 9% of national health-care spending, which is up from about 6.5% just a decade ago.

Similar to the passage of helmet laws for people riding motorcycles, if those riders want to take a risk with their own safety, that would be fine with me — as long as I am not required to pay for their injuries. But in today’s world, the health-care costs are not restricted just to those risk-takers, but are spread to the rest of us as well. Therefore under these circumstances, the public has a right to impose these safety requirements.

The costs for publishing information about the nutrition of the menu items would be almost insignificant. There are several simple computer programs that can easily compute the calorie and fat information, and for restaurant chains that have the same menus, the computation would only have to be done once. Yes, most menus would have to be reprinted, and the boards above the counters at the fast food outlets would have to be supplemented, but these would not be material costs, particularly because there would be a phase-in period. But the benefits could be substantial. So any cost/benefit analysis should come down in favor of taking this action.

But this approach should not simply be restricted to passing laws. Each of us should do what we can to make healthier food choices available for people we are involved with. The first and most obvious place to start is in our schools. If you see that your child’s school still has cafeterias, snack stands or vending machines that sell soda pop, potato chips, cookies and other “foods” high in sugar, calories and fats, use whatever influence you have for those items to be replaced with things like juices, vitamin waters, yogurts, apples and other more healthy alternatives. Yes, many of these more nutritious foods cost somewhat more, and have a shorter shelf life, but that is a small price to pay for materially greater health for our children.

Happily, many caring schools have already taken this action, and so have several institutions like the YMCA. But we should also not neglect the snack stands at events like school concerts and recitals, as well as soccer, basketball and little league baseball games.

This will go a long way to put peer pressure in favor of more nutritious eating.

In a similar manner, I am encouraging the managers at my alternative dispute resolution office to stop furnishing potato chips, corn nuts, cookies and other junk food to our clients, and to replace them with more healthy offerings. I have told the story that when I was in junior high school I had a package of corn nuts with almost every lunch. But I had not eaten them since that time, until I retired from the bench and began with my mediation business, where those packages of corn nuts were always there on the tables, just looking at me. So I confess that I sometimes weakened and ate some. But had they not been there, I would have never missed them. So the bottom line is that most people have a weakness, but if caring people “remove us from temptation,” we will all be assisted in making healthier choices.

So please consider doing everyone a favor in this area. Accurate information and a little thoughtful caring can and will go a long way to reduce obesity in us and our children, and will also reduce an appreciable amount of our health-care expenses along the way.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)