Posts Tagged ‘Cigarettes’

Saw this article from the Washington Post:

 Evidence is mounting that calorie labels — promoted by some nutritionists and the restaurant industry to help stem the obesity crisis — do not steer most people to lower-calorie foods. Eating habits rarely change, according to several studies. Perversely, some diners see the labels yet consume more calories than usual.

Questions about the effectiveness of calorie disclosure come as the federal government is finalizing regulations to nationalize labeling in chain restaurants next year as part of a measure tucked into President Obama’s health-care law. Some chain restaurants are…offering more low-calorie meals. Yet several high-cal eateries…report no change in dining habits because of the labels.

“Have we seen a big [drop] in sales? No, not at all,” said Todd Stallings, owner of several Five Guys restaurants in Montgomery, which based its rules on the upcoming federal policy. “When people come to Five Guys, they know we are not cooking their french fries in water.”

and later…

Research in a fast-food restaurant in King County, Wash., where calorie labeling is also law, found similar results. The stated finding was grim: “Mandatory menu labeling did not promote healthier food-purchasing behavior.”

Another recent study shows what really worked was imposing a higher price — by way of a tax — on big-calorie items.

Experts say that for most diners, the issue is not about having information but about lacking self-control. Behavioral economists have for years zeroed in on a logical hiccup: We are unable to balance short-term gains with long-term costs…With eating out, the gains are immediate (yummy giant burrito!) and the costs are delayed (heart disease!).

“The long-term consequences are totally intangible,” Loewenstein said. “Eating has that in common with cigarettes: One cigarette is not going to kill you, and one big meal is not going to kill you. But the difference is, you need to eat to survive. So there’s an easy rule for the cigarette problem: Stop. There is no easy rule for eating. We must eat.”

I think the article hints at the possible explanations for the failure of calorie labeling, but doesn’t explicate them well enough.  Here are the possibilities that I see:

  1. Abstract data (labeling) does not mean much in comparison to first-hand experience.  If a person has historically eaten hamburgers without any issues (whether due to age, activity level, etc.) then that person is less likely to respond to the caloric information of a hamburger because they expect a certain input (hamburger) and a certain output (change in weight).  Simply put, eating junk is a hard to kick habit.
  2. Most people know fast food is not particularly healthy for you.  While some people underestimate the calories in a Big Mac, in other cases people likely overestimate the gastric devastation of such food.  Calorie labeling brings their perceptions closer to reality, allowing them to judge the dietary “costs” of the food.  Viewing calories as the currency of one’s daily dietary budget, calorie labeling can reveal the true “price”  of food that monetary cost does not necessarily reveal to the uninformed consumer.  As a result of this “price” decrease or increase via calorie labeling, demand for the food increases or decreases.  In turn, while some people likely eat less food due to calorie labeling, some newly-informed individuals may eat more food, offsetting the decrease in aggregate consumption due to those previously underestimating the “price” of junk food.
  3. People already know some foods are bad for them.  The aforementioned “price increase” does not affect them because of their inelastic demand for the food.  However, they value saving money more than eating less calories, so a “fat tax” works.
  4. Individuals value short term gains disproportionately to long term costs, per the article.

I also had the following random thoughts as I read the article:

  1. It would be interesting to subject individuals of different BMI and eating habits to an experiment.  The setup would be simple enough: allow each subject only a certain number of calories each day.  Observe how people would change their eating habits, if at all.  Then repeat the experiment, at times changing the amount of money the individual may spend (from $5 per day to unlimited funding) and changing the caloric allowances to see if the caloric allowances would limit decisions or if individuals would ration calories.
  2. I don’t buy Loewenstein’s explanation.  Sure, we cannot live without food while we can live without cigarettes.  Yet that does not means we cannot live without certain types of foods.  Loewenstein assumes that cigarettes are harmful to our health in the long term and are considered a luxury good.  That second part, the extraneous luxury good element of cigarettes, is what supposedly distinguishes cigarettes from fried chicken.  Yet in the same sense that a cigarette is a long-term health hazard that some enjoys as a luxury and ceases consumption if necessary, is not foie gras equally so?
  3. Someone needs to conduct a survey which asks customers for their estimates of the caloric content of foods prior to calorie labeling and after calorie labeling.  Are people actually reading the labels?  Additionally, are they really that uninformed in the first place?  I’m sure this has been done, but I’d love to see the results.