Menu Mandates and Obesity: A Futile Effort

One provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) that has been delayed until 2017 is a federal mandate for standard menu items in restaurants and some other venues to contain nutrition labeling. The motivation for so-called “menu mandates” is a concern about rising obesity levels driven largely by Americans’ eating habits. Menu mandates have been implemented at the state and local level within the past decade, allowing for a direct examination of the short-run and long-run effects on outcomes such as body mass index (BMI) and obesity. Drawing on nearly 300,000 respondents from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) from 30 large cities between 2003 and 2012, we explore the effects of menu mandates. We find that the impact of such labeling requirements on BMI, obesity, and other health-related outcomes is trivial, and, to the extent it exists, it fades out rapidly. For example, menu mandates would reduce the weight of a 5’10” male adult from 190 pounds to 189.5 pounds. For virtually all groups explored, the long-run impact on body weight is essentially zero. Analysis of subgroups suggests that to the extent that menu mandates affect short-run outcomes, they do so through a “novelty effect” that wears off quickly. Subgroups that were thought likely to experience the largest gains in knowledge from such mandates exhibit no short-run or long-run changes in weight.

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