SF government’s new food fight will simply fatten bureaucracy

A few weeks ago, Santa Clara County passed a measure intended to reduce child obesity by fining restaurants for offering toys as part of meal promotions. San Francisco has responded with a similar measure that won’t help the kids slim down, but is guaranteed to fatten up already-bloated government.

On Aug. 10, supervisors Eric Mar, David Campos and David Chiu proposed forbidding restaurants from offering marketing gimmicks if their meals contain calories, sodium, fat, saturated fat, trans fat and sugar that’s deemed excessive. On the other hand, the menu-driven measure gives restaurants credit for serving fruits and vegetables. Will it actually reduce child obesity?

Obesity accounts for 7 percent of the San Francisco Public Health Department’s medical costs that are not reimbursed, according to the new measure. San Francisco has already invested considerable resources to fight this problem.

They include Shape Up San Francisco, a “multidisciplinary coalition” that provides an annual walking challenge; the Safe Routes to School program to encourage walking or biking to school; the Rethink Your Drink marketing campaign to reduce soda consumption; and healthy-eating programs for families on welfare.

The new ordinance notes that, “despite these measures, childhood obesity rates continue to rise.”

The real force behind this legislation is the Public Health Department, which has been growing for the past three years, fueled by the Healthy San Francisco program. This program taxes small businesses, primarily restaurants and retailers, that can’t afford to offer health benefits.

The public health bureaucracy devoured $36 million of these taxes, for fiscal year 2008-09, while spending only $11 million reimbursing medical providers and pharmacies. The rest went to nonmedical spending, including $8 million on salary and benefits for new bureaucratic positions.

It’s easy to understand this measure’s popularity with bureaucrats looking for fresh pastures — imagine hiring platoons of inspectors to go around fining restaurants for handing out dolls and other trinkets! Ordinary citizens see it differently. Earlier this year, the California Restaurant Association — an interested party, to be sure — conducted a survey of Santa Clara County residents.

A full 80 percent of respondents said that fighting obesity was not a local government issue. Almost nine in 10 didn’t 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.

It’s a shame that The City’s real problems will have to wait while health department squads raid restaurants for handing out baseball cards.

John R. Graham is the director of health care studies at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based public policy think tank.

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