Columbia Paper editorial: Food content labels

Fight obesity with knowledge

 

WHAT ARE YOU EATING? With all the health and food scares going around these days, maybe none of us really wants to know. But that’s not what the data say. As it turns out, when we know more—and more accurate—information, we make better choices. Sometimes.

   That fact came up in a new initiative by Governor David Paterson this week to have restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and other ready-to-eat food suppliers owned by large chains reveal to consumers how many calories are in the food they sell. New York City already has a law like this on the books.

   At least one local lawmaker has derided the governor for taking his attention off the more pressing problems facing the state. But that criticism misses the point. The nation has a big fat problem, and a labeling requirement that made everybody more aware of the calories in each serving of fast food might make a small but important difference in our wallets.

   That’s right. Obesity is a financial issue, but not because we spend more on fast food per capita than the rest of the world, although we do. The hidden cost of obesity lies in the impact it has on what we pay now and what we will pay in the future for healthcare.

   Statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are a decade old, but even back then, in what were literally leaner times, the best estimate was that the medical costs associated with overweight and obesity hovered above $92 billion nationwide. The governor’s statement Monday reported that the state currently spends around $6 billion a year on obesity related illnesses. So treating what should be a preventable condition has become as expensive as bailing out a medium-sized bank.

   What’s more, the CDC found that most of the money was spent on Medicare and Medicaid. And guess what program comprises one of the biggest parts of our county tax bill: Medicaid.

   This problem has nothing to do with bashing people for their waist sizes or about acting like fashion police who demand that everyone look like a supermodel on a Slimfast diet. It’s about the cost of obesity. One of the illnesses associated with obesity is diabetes, and we all pay in taxes to help support the care and treatment arising from the complications afflicting many diabetics, like heart disease and stroke.

   The question really comes down to a calculation of what works best for the most people. Maybe someday there will be a drug that will make everybody weigh just what the body mass index chart determines as your optimum weight. But miracle drugs always come with certain undesirable side effects, and the thin pill will undoubtedly cause some percentage of the people who take it to sprout coconut trees out of their ears, or something worse.

   Another alternative would be for the government to regulate what people eat in restaurants or to clamp down on the size of the portions restaurants serve. But if the country can’t stop illegal immigration, the use of marijuana or bank executive bonuses, how would it halt the illicit trade in bacon and gravy triple cheeseburgers?

   Maybe the answer is not to regulate the amount of food we consume at restaurants but to tax it.    That’s exactly what Governor Paterson proposed earlier this year for high-sugar-content soft drinks. Fortunately, he quickly abandoned that screwy and unfair plan after howls of protest and laughter.

   The state could turn its back on the obesity epidemic, and leave people to deal with it on their own. But historically New Yorkers don’t react that way, and we’d all have to pay anyway. So one place to start addressing this problem is by giving consumers the knowledge to make up their own minds about what food they buy when eating out will be the best for their health.

   Funny thing about that: It’s a market solution. All it requires is for the state legislature to level the playing field for us, the buyers, and then let us decide what to eat. Studies show that in New York City and California, when people know how much fat they’re eating, they eat less of it.

   This bill won’t end obesity, but it could help people in their effort to control their weight. We urge the Assembly and the Senate to pass the bill right away.

 

 

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