Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A Tale of Two Studies:"Where's the Beef?"

Well don't act real shocked, but the city has issued its own calorie posting study, and guess what? It contradicts the independent analysis, and offers a less gloomy picture of the impact of this inane regulation. As the NY Times reports: "Just a few weeks ago, independent researchers reported that New York City’s ground-breaking calorie labeling law had had absolutely no effect on the caloric content of meals bought at chain restaurants in poor neighborhoods. Last week, city health officials delivered a more upbeat assessment, saying New Yorkers ordered fewer calories at four chains — Au Bon Pain, KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks — after the law went into effect last year."

But at least some of the discrepancy is a result of methodology: "Although the findings of the two reports appear to contradict one another, researchers said differences in focus and size might explain the discrepancies. The first study, published in the journal Health Affairs last month, assessed the effect of calorie labeling only in low-income, minority neighborhoods, while the larger health department study assessed the effect citywide."

So, the NYU folks, responding logically to the assertion of DOH that its cockamamie calorie concept was directed at the obese among the city's low income residents, studied the measures impact in those neighborhoods while DOH-hoping, you think, for a better outcome?-did a city wide study. But even so, the results weren't-Carly Simon like-earth moving under our feet.

As the Times tells us: "The changes reported by the city health department’s preliminary data were modest, indicating little change either way in the number of calories bought at 8 of 13 chains surveyed, and a significant increase in calories ordered at Subway, which researchers attributed to a continuing $5 promotional special on footlong sandwiches that has tripled demand for them."

All of this time, effort, and misinformation for this? As the NYU researcher informs us, proceeding with just a bit more integrity than the city: "We looked at a population that’s much more price sensitive, so calorie information could have taken a backseat to pricing in our group,” said Brian Elbel, author of the earlier study and an assistant professor of medicine and health policy at New York University School of Medicine. Since obesity rates tend to be higher in these neighborhoods, Dr. Elbel added, “this is where we would have liked to see an impact most.”

Ah, price sensitivity, otherwise known as being poorer, plays a role. Who would have thunk it? Well, we did poke any number of holes in this social experiment that had no basis in social science or public health research-and the issue of cost was one of those variables that we mentioned. And cost to the franchisees was another inconvenient truth ignored when the health bureaucrats began to unleash this Nanny attack on New Yorkers.

But here's the stark reality that should-but won't-give the Nannies pause before they embark on their next crusade: "In fact, only about 56 percent of chain restaurant customers said they noticed the posted calorie information, and even fewer, about 15 percent, said they took the calorie information into account when making their choices. Those 15 percent bought 106 fewer calories, on average, than consumers who said they had not seen or used the information, the study found."

The good news? The Starbucks customers-higher incomes and skinnier than the Big Mac aficionados-apparently did make changes: "While the health department study found little change in the number of calories bought at most chain restaurants, researchers said the number of calories ordered over all at coffee shops declined by almost 10 percent, to an average of 237 in 2009 from an average of 260 in 2007, even though many people said they did not really notice or use the information."

But as far as making even a small dent on the city's rampant obesity problem in low income communities, this experiment was a total failure-all the rats got fatter it seems. But the DOH is gratefully patient about this setback, as the always nice Dr. Lynn Silver explains: "Dietary changes come slowly,” said Dr. Lynn Silver, an assistant commissioner in the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene who presented the data from the study at a meeting of the Obesity Society in Washington. “We were not expecting to see miracles.”

Nice to not have to live up to those kind of expectations. But even some minor changes would have been nice, no?