Which is More Obese, San Francisco’s Kids, or Its Government?

Imagine this scene a year or two in our future: An inspector from the San Francisco Department of Public Health spots something shiny behind a restaurant freezer. He pulls out a plastic Iron Man™ action figure, which the manager claims belongs to his son. No dice – they haul him downtown for using toys to lure kids into his restaurant.

If Supervisors Eric Mar, David Campos, and David Chiu have their way, this embarrassing spectacle of political overreach will become reality. Their stated goal is to reduce childhood obesity, but will it work?

Ordinance no. 101096, proposed on August 10, would forbid restaurants from offering marketing gimmicks if their meals contain calories, sodium, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and sugar that the ordinance defines as excessive. On the other hand, there is actually a “carrot” along with the stick. Restaurants would get credit for serving fruits or vegetables. It’s a menu-driven measure!

The legislation states that 7 percent of San Francisco Public Health Department’s unreimbursed medical costs are attributable to obesity. The problem, however, is so complex and challenging that it surpasses the competence of government, which in San Francisco is not very high. Indeed, the legislation’s preamble notes that San Francisco has already invested considerable resources to combat childhood obesity.

These include “Shape Up San Francisco,” a “multidisciplinary coalition” that provides an annual walking challenge; a “Safe Routes to School” program to encourage walking or biking to school; a “Rethink Your Drink” marketing campaign to reduce soda consumption; and healthy eating programs for families on welfare. “Despite these measures,” the ordinance notes, “childhood obesity rates continue to rise. . . ” The new measure won’t change that reality, which invites another question. Whose interest does it in fact serve?

It’s easy to understand this measure’s popularity with the local ruling class. How can they lose bashing fast-food joints? A similar ordinance passed in Santa Clara County a few weeks ago and politicians around the country have been looking to the South Bay county for guidance in fashioning their own “Banish Barbie” statute.

In a survey of Santa Clara County residents conducted earlier this year by the California Restaurant Association (an interested party, to be sure), 80 percent of respondents said that this issue was not something that local government should decide. Almost nine in 10 did not believe that local politicians are better informed than ordinary citizens about what restaurant food is healthy. Only one in 10 believed that local government should have the power to ban toys or gifts from restaurant promotions.

Voters recognize the absurdity, but politicians wouldn’t propose it unless someone benefitted. The real force behind this legislation is the San Francisco Department of Public Health, on a roll for three years now. Its growth is fueled by the Healthy San Francisco program, which taxes small businesses (primarily restaurants and retailers) that cannot afford to offer health benefits.

For the fiscal year 2008-2009, the public-health bureaucracy devoured $36 million of these taxes, while spending only $11 million reimbursing medical providers and pharmacies. The rest of this windfall went to non-medical spending, including $8 million on salary and benefits for new positions. Now the DPH wants the authority to fine restaurants for handing out baseball cards.

Meanwhile, does the Board of Supervisors have nothing better to do than give them that authority? A few weeks ago, San Francisco passed a $6.5 billion budget while running a deficit of almost half a trillion dollars. The city has increased fees and cut services. San Francisco’s real problems, unfortunately, will have to wait until the bureaucracy’s needs are satisfied.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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