April 4, 2016

New York City's High-Sodium Rule Doubles down on Failed Health Policies

Sherzod Abdukadirov

Former Research Fellow
Summary

In a nail-biting twist in the most recent confrontation between the New York City administration and city restaurants, the New York Court of Appeals put a last minute hold on the administration's new rule requiring high sodium warnings on food in restaurant chains.

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In a nail-biting twist in the most recent confrontation between the New York City administration and city restaurants, the New York Court of Appeals put a last minute hold on the administration's new rule requiring high sodium warnings on food in restaurant chains. As it deliberates the rule's merits – a decision is expected shortly – the court would be well advised to consider the city's poor track record with similar health initiatives. With this rule, the city administration sought to once again put itself at the forefront of a nationwide effort to improve the American diet. Similar to its previous health initiatives, the rule is well-intentioned but poorly conceived. And similar to the previous initiatives, it will likely impose costs on businesses but fail to make New Yorkers healthier.

The rule requires restaurants to put a warning label on each menu item with high sodium content. It cites numerous studies that show the harmful health impacts of eating too much salt. In addition, it cites studies showing that New Yorkers, on average, have high sodium diets. What is missing from the rule is any evidence that the warning label will convince consumers to change their diets and choose less salty items on the menu. In fact, there is a good reason to believe that the warning label will have no impact on consumers' diets.

In 2006, New York City adopted a similar measure that required restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. The measure targeted New York's high obesity rates. By forcing calorie disclosure on restaurant menus, the city administration hoped that consumers would choose less caloric items. The preliminary evaluation of the policy showed that it failed – consumers largely ignored the calorie counts and did not reduce their caloric intake. A more recent study re-evaluated the policy and came to the same conclusion. Despite its failure, the policy is still in effect in New York.

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