A mandate buried in the Affordable Care Act requiring vending machine operators to post nutritional labels "in close proximity" to food items likely won't change eating habits and is an overreach by the federal government, according to some policy experts.
About 10,800 companies are expected to be affected when the new rules are put in place, likely within a year. The mandate applies to any company that operates 20 or more vending machines, and calls for the calorie count of candy, soda, and snacks to be disclosed.
The requirement was contained in Section 4205 of Obamacare, along with new menu labeling requirements affecting chain restaurants with 20 or more locations and some convenience stores and groceries.
"It comes down to the idea that the public is incapable of making these decisions and the government should try to ensure that the public has more information about calories before they buy their food," said Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agriculture policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
"The idea is that they'll try to reduce their caloric intake, even though there is no support for that," Bakst told Newsmax.
The National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA) has expressed concern about the compliance costs for small business owners.
Close to 75 percent of the companies impacted by the rule have three or fewer employees, The Associated Press reported, citing information from NAMA.
The cost to roll out the regulation is estimated at $25.8 million. For every year thereafter, costs are expected to run as high as $24 million. NAMA noted that for small companies, it would cost about $2,400 to comply with the new rules in the beginning, with a projected $2,200 in annual costs each year thereafter.
"The money that would be spent to comply with this — there's no return on the investment," Eric Dell, NAMA senior vice president for government affairs, told the AP.
Bakst said that previous labeling requirements have failed to change the eating habits of most Americans.
Menu labeling research has shown that it is questionable at best whether customers should know about how many calories there are in a particular item, Bakst said. "It doesn't mean they'll choose a lower calorie item. In fact, there is some evidence that shows people are eating more calories," even with the nutritional information in front of them.
Bakst said "the biggest theme of this is the assumption that government should try to influence your nutritional decisions."
Bakst asserted that there is a lack of data on vending machines and nutrition, and cost estimates are likely to go even higher than government projections.
"They don't even have quantified benefits," Bakst said. "It's yet another idea that consumers make incorrect decisions when it comes to food and government should step in and decide to reduce caloric intake."
Bakst asserted that most people use vending machines to tide them over when they cannot consume a full meal.
Data show there is about one vending machine for every 40 adults in the United States, and up to 5 percent of the money consumers spend away from home is on vending machine items, Bakst said.
"At a minimum, about 95 percent of the money you spend on food has nothing to do with a vending machine. It's an extremely small issue," he added. "People aren't exactly buying five candy bars at once."
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