Friday, December 08, 2006

Why New York City's proposed ban on trans-fats is a bad idea: A Social Science Perspective-Scott B. Keays

On December 5, 2006, New York City became the first major US city to implement a ban against restaurants serving food containing artificial trans fats. New York City’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden believed that this ban necessary as a way to help combat heart disease, which he considers to be, “…the No. 1 killer in New York City (Crowley, et al.).” As one of the nation’s leaders in number of restaurants per capita, New Yorkers consume more restaurant meals and take out than most Americans. As consumers today are increasingly using commercially based products and eating more fast foods, trans fats have become a part of the average American diet. Trans fats are often an ingredient in these products because its chemical makeup allows these products to have a substantially longer shelf life. (“No Place for Trans Fats in the ‘Big Apple’”).

Advocates for this change, most notably from Ban Trans Fats, have always believed that the city’s restaurants could easily change the ingredients of their recipes. For proof that this is possible, they pointed to the producers in Europe who are rapidly developing trans-free margarines that are also low in saturated fats (Ascherio, et al.). These advocates also noted that companies like Kraft recently eliminated trans fats from its Oreo cookies and reduced or eliminated it in about 650 other products and no one noticed a difference in taste. Supporters of these measures believe the healthy benefits derived from this change far outweigh the costs that restaurants and their suppliers will ultimately incur (“Trans Fat News”).

Despite the good intentions of these bans, and the successful implementation of these bans in other cities and countries, I am still not convinced that New York City made the right decision by banning restaurants from using products that contain trans fats. The primary reason this proposal is flawed is because, ultimately, I don’t think the ban will significantly reduce the number of New Yorkers with heart disease every year. Although consumption of trans fats is undoubtedly linked to several major risk factors of heart disease, such as high cholesterol and diabetes; I doubt that everyone who has heart disease suffers from only symptoms caused by trans fats consumption. Rather, they suffer from multiple symptoms of heart disease; some of which can be controlled by changing one’s overall lifestyle, while some remain out of one’s control (“Risk Factors and Coronary Heart Disease”).

According to the American Heart Association, the risk factors of heart disease that cannot be modified, treated, or controlled include increasing age, gender, and heredity (such as race). Conversely, major risk factors that one could modify, treat, or control by changing one’s lifestyle or taking medicine include tobacco use, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity and diabetes. Other contributing factors of heart disease include stress and too much alcohol consumption (“Risk Factors and Coronary Heart Disease”). Although it wasn’t the primary health concern of this act, New York City has already taken steps to reduce heart disease by outlawing smoking in restaurants and bars. As secondhand smoke increases the risk of coronary events by about 30 percent, this ban serves as a way to protect the general nonsmoking population. Although this ban was met with resistance at first, it quickly gained acceptance as restaurant surveys found that smoking bans ultimately pose no economic threat to restaurants, bars or other businesses (Wheeler).

Unfortunately, I don’t believe the logic used in formulating the smoking ban was applied to the current ban on trans fat. In the case of the smoking ban, not only was the smoker increasing his or her risk of contracting heart disease, but they were also increasing the likelihood that those around them would potentially suffer from them as well. Obviously, in the case of trans fats, there are no secondhand effects. Now that the Health Commissioner has been given the leverage to control actions that affect an individual’s health then, based on the logic of this ban, use of tobacco products could be banned outright and mandatory exercise programs could be initiated as well. Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York State Restaurant Association, noted "If the board of health has the authority to do this, then they have the authority to say no beef will be sold in the city because beef is unhealthy. No potato chips, no soda. There's tons of stuff that's unhealthy."

Instead Bookman believed that the FDA requiring the amount of trans fats to be included on a products’ “Nutrition Facts” was the common sense approach that this problem required. Rather than banning trans fat, consumers should be, “…[given] the information they need for them to make a choice, but [The New York City Health Commission] shouldn't go ahead and make a choice for them (Shepard, et al.)." This FDA labeling requirement started in 2006 after the FDA found that that there is no safe level of trans fats in a healthy diet. This change was critical as previous regulations only required food labels to include the amount of saturated fat, but not the amount of trans fat. Previously, this had enabled producers to increase their products’ trans content while decreasing the amount of saturated fat used (Ascherio, et al.).

Another reason why New York City’s ban on trans fats is misguided is that it neglected to consider restaurant owners’ lack of access to and resources for trans fat alternatives. As Charles Hunt of the New York State Restaurant notes, “…there simply aren't enough trans-free products and oils on the market today.” Given the fact that there is a set time allotted for restaurants to change to trans fat free products, coupled with how long it will likely take to develop and to test new products, it will be nearly impossible for any restaurant to adopt these changes (Hunt). Another concern is as demand for trans fats substitutes increases, could the markets supply it at a reasonable cost to the restaurant?

Regrettably, restaurant owners might regress to using products that are both as unhealthy as trans fats and not prohibited by this ban. Previously, the restaurant industry has adopted new policies in order to deal with medical concerns over saturated fats found in lard and butter. Without government intervention, the industry substituted products containing trans fats as an alternative to using products with saturated fats. Now, due to increasing medical concerns about trans fats, New York City’s restaurateurs have actively been looking for alternatives (Hunt).

Interestingly enough, Ban Trans Fat’s website seems to support the use of products which are low in saturated fats. By comparing several biological effects of the trans fatty acids and saturated fatty acids, Ban Trans Fats makes it clear that it is their belief that products with saturated fats are definitely preferable over products with trans fats. As Ban Trans Fats notes, saturated fats occur naturally in the body and help to support the immune system, whereas trans fatty acids do not occur naturally in the body and interfere with the function of the immune system. They also note that, “… saturated fatty acids conserve the good omega-3 fatty acids, whereas trans fatty acids cause the tissues to lose these omega-3 fatty acids (Enig).”
Although some types of fats are essential for good health, such as unsaturated fats, I believe that it is outrageous to endorse the lesser of two evils; especially when products that use saturated fats have already been replaced once. The fact still remains that few lower saturated fat alternatives exist on the market. Even though the FDA has concluded that there is no safe level of trans fats in a healthy diet, I still think that both advocates and opponents of the ban can agree that regressing to the use of saturated fats in foods certainly won’t ensure better overall health outcomes for New Yorkers.

Another consideration that this ban doesn’t seem to recognize is the economic impact that it will have on New York City’s restaurant industry. This is crucial as New York City’s restaurant industry, at 180,000 people strong, is currently the city’s largest private sector employer. In particular, this ban will have a huge effect on the city’s small and family-owned restaurants. These restaurants, which often serve as their neighborhood’s backbone, also have the fewest resources available to deal with changes that not only affect their menus, but also there entire business structure. As trans fat products help to increase shelf-life, replacing these products with products with shorter shelf lives will ultimately become a large cost for any sized restaurant (Hunt).

Charles Hunt also correctly points out that the city’s ethnic restaurants would probably be the most impacted by this ban. As Hunt put it, “…while it is relatively easy to find trans fat-free substitutes for some foods, many classic New York and ethnic dishes are more difficult to prepare in this way, whether it's cannoli, éclairs, egg rolls or fresh-baked cookies.” Hunt also notes that, “….In a city where small businesses and tourism are so critically important, it is my understanding that no economic impact study of this proposed ban has been undertaken by the city (Hunt).” I believe that the fact that an economic impact study wasn’t even conducted certainly shows the lack of consideration that the New York City Health Commission gave to the restaurant industry when they passed this initiative.

Regrettably, it seems clear that this ban will ultimately a wedge will be driven between New York City’s restaurant industry and the New York Health Commission (Hunt). In the past, health initiatives not only took people’s health into account, but the economic impact that would result. When New York City enacted laws that outlawed smoking in restaurants and bars, supporters of the ban were able to effectively prove to restaurant owners that this was the right idea and that there would be few economic downturns. In fact, several impartial sources proved to New York’s restaurant industry how successful such bans can be. For example, after former-mayor Giuliani’s New York’s Smoke-Free Air Act (April 1995) banned smoking in restaurants of more than 35 seats, Zagat’s Restaurant Guide reported that eating out had increased in the six months since it took effect. Other research compiled by Cornell University also indicated that the restaurant industry had nothing to fear; since those who abide by this act combined with nonsmokers accounted for 84 percent of consumer restaurant spending (Keays).

Obviously, this combined with knowledge about how serious secondhand smoke was, gave restaurant owners a reason to share the same goals as those who wanted to ban smoking in bars. Since the toxic effects second hand smoke affect everyone who breathes it, the benefits of outlawing it have benefited the entire population (Keays). Surely, one couldn’t claim that consumption of trans fats exposes the general public to the negative health effects of its consumption. Instead, consumption of trans fats only affects one person and certainly doesn’t have any secondhand effects. Given these parameters, I doubt that the same urgency can be made over the dangers that trans fats pose to the general public. As with cigarettes, the FDA’s new labeling requirements for products with trans fats has better equipped consumers to make choices about products that affect there well being.

In conclusion, New York City’s ban on trans fat is unsound and ultimately won’t lead to a reduction of heart disease. First of all, consumption of trans fats only contributes to a few of the many factors that cause heart disease. Thus, the banning products with trans fats will only be the first in a series of regulations that the New York Health Commission would have to pass if it wanted to significantly deaths from heart disease. Secondly, as there are few substitutes available for trans fats, restaurant owners will probably regress and start using products that are high in saturated fats instead. Such products certainly wouldn’t be covered by the ban and would also be unhealthy to consume. Additionally, it doesn’t seem as if enough attention has been paid to the economic impact that this will have on New York’s restaurant industry. As food won’t have as long of a shelf life, marginal costs will increase, and ultimately consumer’s ability to afford a reasonably priced meal will be impacted.

Although I do applaud its campaign to end smoking in restaurants and bars, it also illustrates why a proposed ban on trans fats isn’t necessary in New York. Although New Yorkers eat out probably more than any city in America, an individuals’ trans fat consumption isn’t the only thing that contributes to his or her risk for heart disease. In the case of cigarette smoking, not only was the smoke inhaled by the smoker probably the only cause of any lung disease he might acquire, but also a contributing factor in lung diseases acquired by the people around him. Thus, the deaths of people who don’t even engage in a certain behavior are certainly a cause for a ban; whereas a contributor of deaths of a behavior that only affects an individual shouldn’t be regulated with such force. The FDA has set the right precedent by requiring products with trans fats to be labeled. New York’s Health Commission should follow suit by using its resources to educate the public; rather than making their decisions for them.

Works Cited
"About Trans Fat." Ban Trans Fats. 5 Nov. 2006 .
Ascherio, Alberto, Meir J. Stampfer, and Walter C. Willett. "TRANS FATTY ACIDS AND CORONARY HEART DISEASE." Harvard University. 8 Nov. 2006 .
Crowley, Geoff, Andrew Tucker, and Sara Markt. "HEALTH DEPARTMENT PROPOSES TWO CHANGES TO CITY’S HEALTH CODE FOR PUBLIC COMMENT : Press Releases : NYC DOHMH." 26 Sept. 2006. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 15 Nov. 2006 .
Hunt, Charles. "Trans Fat, Menu Labeling Comments Presented by New York State Restaurant Association At Hearing Before New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene." Restaurant.Org. 30 Oct. 2006. National Restaurant Association. 4 Nov. 2006 .
Enig, Mary. "Trans Versus Sat." Ban Trans Fat. 28 Nov. 2006 .
Keays, Scott B. "New Hampshire Should Follow Bloomberg’s Lead on Smoking." Foster's Daily Democrat 28 Mar. 2003, Morning ed., sec. A: 7.
"No Place for Trans Fats in the 'Big Apple'" AZO Network. 27 Sept. 2006. 15 Nov. 2006 .
"Risk Factors and Coronary Heart Disease." American Heart Association. 15 Nov. 2006 .
Shepard, Michael, Sarah Jenkins, and Bill Lee. "Trans Fats are Bad; So are Laws Against Serving." Yakima Herald-Republic. 4 Oct. 2006. 7 Nov. 2006 .
"Trans Fat News." Ban Trans Fats. 15 Nov. 2006 .
"Trans Versus Sat." Ban Trans Fats. 16 Nov. 2006 .
Wheeler, M C. "New York City Restaurant Survey Supports Smoking Ban." 22 Oct. 2003. American Heart Association. 28 Nov. 2006 .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you oppose removing lead paint, asbestos, and arsenic from buildings and your drinking water? do you oppose the govt stepping in to prevent E. coli outbreaks? Thus, is the govt violating your rights with the trans fat control-- no, the govt is fulfulling its duty to protect its citizens from toxins and poisons. And thats exactly what trans-fat is-- an unnatural toxic food additive (no plant or animal on Earth makes trans-fat).

I'm all for personal freedoms-- but i'm also for the govt protecting citizens from toxic poisons in our food supply.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Michael Siegel said...

I appreciate anonymous' argument that a ban on trans-fats is an attempt to protect citizens from a harmful substance that is "unnatural." However, saccharin is also "unnatural." But public health advocates don't seem to be calling on bans on saccharin. And if they did, might it not actually be harmful overall to health, becauseby eliminating diet sodas and other low-calorie alternatives, it might exacerbate the obesity problem? I'm playing devil's advocate here, but I think it's worth considering whether or not a consistent policy to ban all unnatural food additives might not in fact be counterproductive.

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, one could argue that the government is protecting our rights, but, in order to do so, it must have a legitmate reason for doing so. Lead paint, asbestos, arsenic, and E. coli have detrimental health effects for all of those who come in contact with them. Most likely, this would be involuntarily. Thus, the government has a legitmate interest in protecting everyone. In the case of trans fats, the government is claiming that it has a legitmate interest in reducing the rates of heart disease and cna ban trans fats as a result. But, as there are several causes of heart disease (as opposed to only one cause of lead posising), it seems like if we give the government the power to control trans fats, where will they end?

12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since there is no safe amount of trans fats, then I think it makes sense to ban them from food. While I agree the impact on restuarants needs to be considered, human health and safety is of greater importance than avoiding challenges for businesses. Furthermore, it is a positive that ethnic restaurants face the same regulations to help ensure that ethnic minorities who often have higher rates of heart disease receieve the benefits of the trans fat ban.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but because this ban doesn't apply to saturated fats, restaurants go back to these products, and ultimately no lives will be saved. Thus, given this factor, I don't think that NY can prove that it has a legitmate interest in banning trans fats. This doesn't even take into account all of the other contributors to heart disease; some of which legislators can't control through any means they have.

11:02 AM  

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