Thursday, 15 April 2021

Calorie labels on alcohol

The government is considering mandating calorie labels on alcoholic beverages. This is an anti-obesity push rather than an anti-drinking initiative. It is an extension of the plan to force food outlets to put calorie counts on their food menus. 
That policy is unworkable for smaller establishments who frequently change their menu and has already been watered down by the government. It will now only apply to businesses that have more than 250 employees. The same caveat will apply to the alcohol labelling policy, so it will only be the big chains that have to put calorie information on their beer pumps and/or menus.
The British Beer and Pub Association is said to be 'furious' about this idea and Matt Kilcoyne of the Adam Smith Institute is also unhappy...
‘Brits backing their locals are well aware that too many pints makes beer belly more likely. We don’t need government enforced calorie counts to tell us something we already know.’

‘Ministers thinking up this madness should stop and drop the policy. Let the publicans and the punters do what they want in the pubs without Mr Hancock wagging his finger each time a pint is pulled.’

I can't really share this outrage and I'm not convinced that everybody does know how many calories there are in a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Perhaps the government should conduct a survey to find out if there is really an information deficit worth addressing?
I wrote about this kind of thing in Killjoys...

It is not paternalistic to require a seller to provide accurate information about his wares. Manufacturers and retailers usually know more about their products than do consumers, leading to information asymmetries. If they deliberately withhold important facts from consumers in order to make more sales it is arguably a form of fraud and is certainly a form of market failure. Free-market economists are therefore in favour of buyers being given the facts. Once equipped with adequate information, some people may decide not to buy, but that is not the economist’s intention. The aim is only to give the consumer sufficient information upon which to make his decisions. Information asymmetries due to consumer ignorance are a conventional market failure for which there is a simple solution: education. 

The state can have a hand in this by broadcasting information to the public, or mandating certain lessons in schools, or forcing manufacturers and retailers to impart certain facts to customers. Even John Stuart Mill approved of the use of coercion if a person was ignorant of the risks. In a much discussed analogy in On Liberty, Mill argues that it is right to stop a man crossing an unsafe bridge if there is no time to warn him of the danger, but that no one should intervene if he is aware of the risks. When there is ‘not a certainty, but only a danger of mischief ’, he wrote, ‘no one but the person himself can judge of the sufficiency of the motive which may prompt him to incur the risk’ and so the person should ‘be only warned of the danger; not forcibly prevented from exposing himself to it’. 
In a country where people are increasingly health conscious, calorie counts on alcohol don't strike me as any more controversial than putting the volume of alcohol on a beer pump. I can't say that I feel like Tim Martin is wagging his finger at me when I see the calorie counts in Wetherspoons' menus (although I was taken aback to see that their Full English Breakfast contains 1,200 calories).

The problem with mandatory calorie counts in restaurants is that it would be expensive for small businesses and would lead to pubs, cafés and restaurants restricting their range of food. There is no practical or libertarian objection to calorie counts on packaged food in shops, nor is there a problem with Starbucks and McDonalds putting calorie information on the board. It's useful information, not coercive paternalism.
Apparently, the government reckons it's going to cost the licensed trade £92 million to change their pumps and menus. That sounds a bit steep for a basic graphic design job. Perhaps the answer is to have a long lead-in time so labels and menus can be changed when they are due an update. 

I've yet to hear a good reason why calorie counts should be on food but not alcohol. Some say it could encourage eating disorders, but that applies to all calorie labelling and isn't sufficient reason to conceal important information. Some have said that hard liquor will become more appealing to weight-conscious drinkers, but if people's response to being given accurate information is to drink more vodka and less beer, that's their business.

As I see it, the only problem with the idea is that it will give the capricious 'public health' lobby a foot in the door to demand paternalistic and misleading health warnings in pubs. It's bad enough that the booze industry has capitulated to government pressure and put the fake drinking guidelines on bottles and cans. 

From Killjoys again...

An informative warning for alcohol might explain that 11 million British adults drink at a ‘risky’ level, according to government statistics, and that there are 9,000 alcohol-related deaths a year, meaning that risky drinkers have a roughly 0.08 per cent chance of dying of an alcohol-related cause each year. If given this information, most consumers might conclude that a ‘risky’ level of drinking is not very risky at all. For that reason, such warnings are never issued. Instead, the public is told that alcohol has been ‘linked to’ more than 60 diseases and that there is ‘no safe level of drinking’.

If tobacco regulation is any guide, future labelling in the name of ‘public health’ will not lead to consumers being better informed. Graphic health warnings are less about education than they are about shock and disgust. Studies have shown that pictorial warnings are less effective in transmitting facts than written warnings because they literally repel the consumer. Cass Sunstein supports graphic warnings as a way ‘to persuade, not merely inform’, but when the evidence was independently reviewed, it found that ‘the impact of picture health warnings was negligible’ among young people in the UK and had ‘no discernible impact on smoking prevalence’ in Canada. The obvious explanation for this is that ‘individuals are very well informed about the consequences of smoking, and therefore benefit little from further messaging'. Once again, we have a legitimate market failure (or potential market failure) which paternalists have failed to solve – and may have exacerbated – because their intention is not to inform but to deter.

The threat of the slippery slope is always there, but there is a fundamental difference between simple information and a 'warning'. We should embrace the former but rarely the latter. Unless you want to get rid of calorie counts and ingredient lists on food products and hide the strength of beer from pubgoers, I can see no logic in opposing simple, discreet calorie labelling on booze in chain pubs.

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