Can the Government Make Us Eat Better?

More cities and states are passing proposals aimed at improving our diets, but not without controversy

Public health officials in other municipalities have caught on—legislators in cities including Seattle, Philadelphia and Nashville have passed similar bills, as have the states of California, Massachusetts and Oregon. Fifteen other states are now considering calorie-posting bills and, in 2009, a bill requiring restaurants nationwide to display calorie counts was introduced in Congress.

Reading the writing on the wall, so to speak, Yum! Brands announced that its Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and A&W All-American Food restaurants would begin posting their calorie information on menu boards in their company-owned restaurants across the country and encouraged their franchisees to do the same. And in March 2010, Panera Breads became the first national chain to require calorie information be voluntarily posted on the menu boards in all of its nearly 600 stores nationwide.

Next up: salt. In April of 2009, New York City officials began meeting with food makers and restaurants to discuss ways to reduce the amount of salt in common foods such as soup, pasta sauce, salad dressing and bread. But these measures, health department officials say, will be voluntary.

Not so the taxes on sugary drinks. In the fall of 2009, legislators in New York proposed that controversial measure: a tax on soda and other sugary drinks in order to pay for the growing rates of chronic health problems associated with poor eating habits, heart disease and obesity.

The science has long been clear: Sugar-sweetened soft drinks have been repeatedly linked to obesity, which is in turn linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma and hypertension. In a 2001 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, researchers found that each additional soda or other sweetened drink consumed per day by children increases their odds of becoming obese by 60% percent.

Still, for years, the idea of taxing sugary drinks, which was supported by health activists, was considered too radical for the cola-swilling public and their elected officials.

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