By Paul Howard
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Saturday, January 13, 2007 12:00 AM
Millions of Americans are trying to keep their New Year's resolution to slim down by improving what they eat and how they exercise. Unfortunately, New York's ill-conceived trans fat ban will do little to help; in fact, it will likely undermine those resolutions.
By singling out one substance, the city is sending a dangerous message that health is about eliminating "bad" foods rather than making better lifestyle choices. This is the policy equivalent of a fad diet -- it will grab the headlines for a short while without changing anyone's actual behavior.
The science behind the ban is debatable (experts disagree about the relative danger of trans fats vs. other fats) and its logic tenuous (city bureaucrats can't possibly predict the myriad dietary and exercise choices of millions of New Yorkers). After all, obesity and heart disease are complex chronic ailments that are impacted by an individual's genes, diet and exercise (or lack thereof). If trans fats affect health, they only do it at the outside margins.
And, of course, the law of unintended consequences still applies. For instance, once trans fats are eliminated from city restaurants, diners might increase their consumption of french fries and other fried foods under the illusion that they are now "healthier."
The political logic behind the ban is impeccable. McDonald's and other fast food restaurants that use trans fats for frying and baking are an easy target for the city's health-obsessed media and cultural intelligentsia. These are the nation's most health obsessed consumers, who sip red wine, gravitate to yoga studios, and peer obsessively at the fine print on food labels. These voters view "corporate" food as an affront to nature, and what is worse, déclassé. They are more than happy to save the unwashed masses by imposing better health choices, especially since (it is believed) poor urban consumers have no real food choices available to them.
First, a reality check. Many of the driving forces behind America's widening waistline aren't amenable to bureaucratic fiat: a car-based commuter culture, a service-based economy, and the decline of physical activity among children all combine to make it harder for modern Americans to stay as slim and trim as was the case even a generation ago.
Indeed, even America's justly celebrated diversity makes it difficult to craft one health message that can speak to different ethnic groups, many of which have very different ideas about "good eats" than those that are held on Manhattan's Upper West Side. If any problem begged for a market-based solution, this would be it. And there is plenty of evidence that the market is responding. From McDonald's to Martha Stewart, companies are rushing to educate consumers on how to exercise, eat better and stay healthy.
The problem is that many of these options are out of the reach of the urban poor. In fact, if policymakers are serious about helping low-income Americans get better access to healthier and more affordable food, they need to make poor urban areas more market-friendly.
The first thing they can do is to make it easier for "big-box" stores like Wal-Mart, Costco and Pathmark to open in low-income urban areas that are often only served by small, expensive bodegas and grocery stores. For instance, a 2006 Brookings Institution study found that "higher priced, small grocery stores are concentrated in New York's lower income neighborhoods." Typically, these stores only had about 7,600 square feet compared to an average size of over 27,000 square feet for stores in more affluent areas.
Smaller stores usually translate into higher prices. Brookings researchers found that "over 67 percent of the same food products in our sample of 132 different products [were] more expensive in small grocery stores than in larger grocery stores."
Rather than treat larger chain stores for what they are -- a godsend for low-income consumers -- local politicians (driven by local interests) have fought to keep large grocery retailers out of low-income neighborhoods. The result is that a market-driven menu, including organic and bulk options, has blossomed in the suburbs while the choices available to poor consumers have remained stagnant for decades.
Targeted deregulation, rezoning, and a willingness to confront entrenched political interests would all help expand inexpensive grocery options for poor urban consumers, leveling the health gap between them and their affluent neighbors. While trendy shoppers look to Whole Foods for organic produce, low-income shoppers can buy the same vegetables at Wal-Mart.
Over two hundred years ago, Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations that market competition, by driving down prices, disproportionately benefits the poor, who spend more of their income on such necessities as housing and food. Policymakers (and too many affluent urban voters) take market competition for granted, precisely because they never have to worry about finding healthful food options.
Rather than foisting patronizing policies upon the poor, policymakers across the country should focus on giving better market options to the least advantaged. That's a New Year's resolution we all should be able to honor.
Paul Howard is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Medical Progress.