A study of New York City’s pioneering law on posting calories in restaurant chains suggests that when it comes to deciding what to order, people’s stomachs are more powerful than their brains.
The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken — in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.
It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.
But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
This result is utterly unsurprising. Most people have long been aware that fast food is caloric; information on the exact amounts is unlikely to change eating habits. Indeed, if the correct calorie counts are lower than what some people believed, posting this information might cause a few customers to order more calories.
Even if laws like NYC's are effective, why should policy care about obesity? The usual argument is that governments subsidize health insurance, so obesity by some forces elevated health costs on others.
The obvious solution, in that case, is to make the subsidies decrease with weight, so that people face a monetary incentive to slim down. Or, better yet, eliminate subsidies for health insurance.