New Junk Food Ordinance: Another “Feel Good” California Law that Does No Good

California is a tough place to live. Ranked as the state with the nation’s worst quality of life, Californians have the biggest debt-to-income ratio, suffer the highest income taxes in the country, and are more likely to be homeless than residents of other states. California is also home to three of 15 most dangerous cities in America. One might think local lawmakers would have their hands full trying to figure out how to improve citizens’ lives. But, over in Berkeley, they’re more concerned about how residents purchase their snacks than the fact that their city is the worst in the country for first-time home buyers and poverty is at nearly 70 percent in some areas. 

Of course, things like poverty, crime, and economics are complex, difficult-to-solve issues and lawmakers like to feel like they are doing something. That might explain why the Berkeley City Council last week unanimously passed the “Healthy Checkout Ordinance,” a new rule banning unhealthy snacks for sale at checkout lines. The measure’s sponsor, Council member Kate Harrison, described it as “good behavioral economics,” with other supporters pitching it as a way to combat predatory food marketing and address high levels of diabetes and heart disease, particularly among minority residents.

Will preventing people from impulse-purchasing sugary, salty, or fatty snacks have the desired effect? The few studies done on this sort of policy have come to mixed results. Some have found that eliminating unhealthy snacks from checkout lines modestly reduces snack purchases at those stores. What isn’t clear is if customers are making those purchases elsewhere and whether or not it results in improved diet quality overall.

That said, even if completely ineffective, the new rule is fairly innocuous. It applies only to the largest shops (over 2,500 square feet) and, even at those stores, consumers can still get these snacks—just not at the checkout line. It also doesn’t seem terribly burdensome for the shops nor does it have a negative effect on sales or revenue. But is that the best Californians can expect from their lawmakers—crafting new rules that have no benefit but aren’t that bad?

I do not want to judge the Healthy Checkout ordinance prematurely. It could prove a simple way to modestly improve people’s dietary patterns without actually imposing on personal choice. Or it could be just another entry in the state’s long and growing list of feel-good measures based on dodgy science (or no science at all) that actually does nothing to improve residents’ lives.

Take, for example, the Proposition 65 cancer warning labels that have become so ubiquitous throughout the state they’re more of punchline than anything else. Might as well just slap “may cause cancer” alert at every point of entry into the state and be done with it.

Then there is the growing list of California cities banning flavored e-cigarettes or e-cigarettes entirely, as San Francisco recently did. They did this despite mountains of evidence that vaping doesn’t increase youth smoking (which is lower than ever), that nicotine vapor products are at least 95 percent safer than smoking, and more effective for smoking cessation than traditional nicotine replacement therapy. They also ignored the evidence that such bans increase smoking among adults and youth and will push many into the illicit market—the same market responsible for the outbreak of “vaping-linked” lung injuries caused by tainted cannabis vapes. And never mind that age limits are deemed perfectly adequate for flavored alcohol, flavored cannabis, and traditional cigarettes—all of which remain legal in the state. They felt like banning e-cigarettes would do something, so they banned them.

Compared to these other feels-based rules and regulations, Berkeley’s Healthy Checkout ordinance doesn’t seem consequential. But that’s exactly why it could serve as a wakeup call for California voters. As Berkeley resident A.J. Curtis told KNTV in an interview, “I feel like they should be focusing on more than the food we eat.” With the economic and health crises caused by COVID-19 and the state’s many other longstanding issues, local lawmakers shouldn’t be wasting time with measures that feel good. They should be laser-focused on coming up with evidence-based solutions that actually are good for residents.