WEST Hollywood, California - On opposite coasts, New York and California have struggled in recent years with a public health obsession with obesity. In each state, there have been different solutions offered - both of which have rankled libertarians and conservatives who oppose big-government intervention in people's lives. The approaches offer a choice between empowering the individual or disenfranchising people, and only a few months in to each experiment, my personal experience tells me that knowledge is power.
In California, Los Angeles school board officials launched the battle on obesity by banning soda pop and other junk food in public schools. These items were inherently bad and children should not even have the choice to buy them - so went the board's logic. By contrast, New York, the City recently required that chain restaurants list caloric content prominently on their menus.
Restaurant owners sued in New York, claiming that the law was a violation of the restaurants' free speech rights, a view that was not upheld by the courts. But, given the choice between disclosing calorie counts or not serving items at all, the former is clearly the better option since people generally visit restaurants to eat.
Unlike most people, on a recent visit to New York, I actually paid attention to the calorie counts on the menu, and was somewhat surprised.
At Starbucks, I was shocked to see that, outside of plain oatmeal, one of the lowest-calorie items on their pastry menu was the bacon and egg sandwich. Conversely, the plain glazed donut ran close to 500 calories - or the equivalent of a quarter of the average person's recommended daily caloric intake. And I'm taking another hint from this newfound knowledge. Starbucks New York doesn't even serve my favorite item - the chocolate croissant!
At Wolfgang Puck's JFK airport outlet, my instincts about which food was "better" were proven wrong. It was quite a surprise to learn that the barbeque chicken pizza had nearly twice as many calories as a pepperoni pizza and that the pepperoni was better for me than a Starbuck's donut.
With knowledge, I was able to make better decisions about which foods to eat and which to avoid and not just in New York, but upon returning to California.
Conversely, California school children are being taught nothing about nutrition with the approach taken by the Los Angeles school board. They can buy a bottle of juice now, but not a can of Coke, even if the "healthier" juice contains as many, if not more, calories than the carbonated beverage.
Instead, Los Angeles' school children are learning how to subvert the school board's ban by going off-campus to buy the goods they can't get at school. That will be a valuable lesson should any of them decide they want to try some "special cigarettes" later in life.
As those after-school specials in our youth taught us, knowledge is power. It won't solve everything - some people still smoke cigarettes despite the warning labels, and way too many people try to operate heavy machinery, like an Isuzu Rodeo, after downing a few drinks - but as a colleague of mine on West Hollywood's Transportation Commission says, "we can't regulate stupid."
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