Steve Chapman

How to explain this outcome? "New York City health officials said that because the study was conducted immediately after the law took effect, it might not have captured changes in people's behavior that have taken hold more gradually," reported The New York Times.

Nice try. The authors of the study considered that possibility and gave it little credence. "Consumers in our sample reported frequenting fast-food restaurants approximately five times per week," they noted, "which indicates that they likely had repeated experiences with calorie labels before our follow-up data collection."

Moreover, said the report, "It is not clear whether continued extensive exposure beyond a month would have made consumers more or less likely to respond to labels." Maybe the information would sink in over time. Or maybe customers who noticed at first would soon tune it out.

But it's not hard to find likely reasons for the failure of this approach. One is that the sort of people who make a habit of eating at Burger King generally don't put a high priority on a sound diet. Giving them nutritional information is a bit like recruiting for Greenpeace at a rifle range -- a doomed enterprise. The people who are most likely to act on fast-food nutritional information are the ones least likely to encounter it, because they're packing a lunch or eating at home.

Rebecca Krukowski, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, says another factor may be at work -- what might be called the coals-to-Newcastle problem. "Oftentimes, when people are interested, they already have the information," she told me. "Maybe they've already been through a weight-control program and become well-educated about nutrition and have become pretty good at estimating calories."

So the menu labels tell them little they didn't already know. Meanwhile, it seems, the people who lack the needed information generally prefer to ignore it when it's foisted on them.

Architects of intrusive policies, like those at the New York health department, may wonder how on earth someone could be given valuable information and not use it to make better decisions. But we could ask the same thing about them.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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