Since its passage in 2010, Obamacare has been rolled out in frequently postponed stages. One stage that’s still delayed is the restaurant calorie count mandate, which per the latest reports has been suspended until December 2016.
The idea is that any restaurant with 20 locations or more—so definitely McDonalds, but not your local mom-and-pop diner—will be forced to display calorie counts for all its menu items. In theory, that might not sound like such a big deal. But in practice the effects of this rule are complicated. For example, the calorie mandate is particularly bad news for craft breweries, especially new outfits operating on the edge of profitability. Many of these smaller outfits offer rotating seasonal selections and a relatively long list of beers (it’s much more than just regular and light, like with Miller and Coors).
So while big chain restaurants and their large-scale suppliers will be able to follow this rule relatively easily, it could effectively ban many craft beers from chain restaurants as smaller breweries struggle to comply. As Paul Gatza of Boulder, Colorado’s Brewers’ Association explains, “A regional craft brewer or a major brewery can spread the cost over a much larger volume of sales and it’s not so unreasonable for them.” For the little guys, the math doesn’t add up.
But what’s most frustrating about the calorie mandate is that it won’t make Americans any healthier.
New York City has had a similar requirement (the location minimum is 15 instead of 20 restaurants) in place since 2008, and the evidence is very clear that it does not work. Period.
In fact, Health Affairs published a study in 2015 that found while fast food customers claim they pay attention to the posted calorie counts and adjust their orders accordingly, there’s actually “no consistent change in the nutritional content of foods and beverages purchased or in how often respondents purchased fast food.”
At the national level, this foolish project will undoubtedly have the same result. But it’s still going to happen to us whether we (and our local breweries) like it or not.
The problem here is the same problem behind most stupid nanny state regulations: no one demanded hard evidence that this new rule was necessary. Nobody persistently asked “Why?!”
That failure to insist on solid reasons for government action is responsible for a whole host of hair-brained regulatory schemes.
It’s why cities all over the country place invasive regulations on where vegetable gardens can be grown on one’s own private property.
It’s why other cities are basically criminalizing homelessness and charitable work to help the homeless get back on their feet.
It’s why, in Wisconsin, selling homemade cookies can land you in jail.
It’s why raw milk continues to be illegal in many jurisdictions, despite the fact that there are plenty of legal foods that are statistically more dangerous (compare raw milk to eggs or sprouts, for example).
It’s why we’re still getting groped and scanned at the airport some 15 years after 9/11—years in which the TSA has not caught a single terrorist while arguably making us less safe by crowding everyone in an easily attacked checkpoint line.
It’s why there are plenty of other bad, invasive mandates on the books at every level of government. As Lenore Skenazy argued at the New York Post this week, “Without demanding evidence of the need for a procedure and its efficacy, all sorts of crazy rules and regulations are allowed to take root.”
Skenazy tells the story of a family vacation that perfectly illustrates this sort of inanity. The family was swimming about waist-deep in Lake Michigan when one of the life guards came up in a canoe. “Go back! Go back!” he yelled. “You have passed the safe swimming depth!” The mom asked why, because the water they were in was only about three feet deep and it wasn’t stormy out.
“It’s not safe!” the lifeguard replied.
“One of our patrol canoes might run into you.”
As Skenazy concludes, we should “subject safety procedures to the same kind of testing we do on [prescription] drugs: Does it work? What are the side effects? Is it worth the cost?”
In recent decades, too often the answer to all three has been no. And until we start consistently rejecting a vague notion of “safety” as an adequate reason for these petty tyrannies, they will continue to abound.