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EDITORIAL: New Jersey trying to make dietary advice illegal

By , - Last modified: October 31, 2018 at 12:07 PM
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New Jersey has long been recognized as one of the healthiest states in the country. It has relatively few smokers, low numbers of diabetics and low rates of adult obesity. Not coincidentally, New Jersey is also in the top 10 states (it sits at No. 3) when it comes to job openings for personal trainers and dietitians.

While New Jersey has much to be proud of with its healthiness ratings and robust personal-fitness industry, a recent bill gaining steam in the state Legislature threatens to upend its legal regime when it comes to health and nutrition.

A committee in the Legislature recently advanced a proposal that would significantly restrict who can provide dietary advice in New Jersey. The bill would require a state-issued license for anyone who attempts to offer nutritional advice, counseling or education to clients.

While the bill may appear innocuous — even helpful — on its face, state legislators would be wise to recognize it for what it is: an attempt by registered dietitians to protect their turf and prevent competition in the diet industry.

At first blush, it may seem reasonable to require those who dispense nutritional advice to obtain a license. But in practice, licensure makes little sense in the nutritional arena. The primary effect of restricting dietary advice to licensed dietitians is to block professionals like personal trainers, health coaches and lifestyle bloggers from dispensing nutritional guidance to clients and the public. These professionals often have good reason to provide dietary advice outside the context of being a licensed dietitian — think of a personal trainer urging his client to eat fewer carbs or a health coach promoting the use of organic foods.

State regulators would be wise to recognize [the bill] for what it is: an attempt by registered dietitians to protect their turf and prevent competition in the diet industry.

Numerous states with laws similar to the one New Jersey is considering have used them to target everyone from bloggers to health coaches. Like the New Jersey proposal, North Carolina’s law permitted unlicensed individuals to provide nutritional “information” about food and diet but restricted nutritional “counseling” to licensed dietitians.

In 2010, state regulators targeted Steve Cooksey, a North Carolina-based blogger who founded the website Diabetes Warrior, to extol the benefits of a Paleolithic diet. The state argued that his blogging activities had crossed the line into nutritional counseling and thus were illegal under state law. Florida has also started running sting operations against health coaches to crack down on those offering unlicensed dietary guidance.

By freezing competitors like diet bloggers, personal trainers and health coaches out of the nutritional marketplace, licensed dietitians are able to create a de facto monopoly when it comes to providing diet advice. Given this dynamic, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the only group to testify in favor of a stricter licensing regime in New Jersey during committee hearings was a group representing registered dietitians. Such groups are quick to claim that allowing unlicensed individuals to provide diet advice is dangerous, but these arguments ultimately ring hollow.

There’s no evidence to suggest that requiring licenses for dispensing diet advice leads to healthier outcomes. Many of the states in America with the lowest obesity rates — including New Jersey — are ones that do not currently have strict nutritional licensing laws. More broadly, there is no evidence of increased health and safety risks in states that lack nutritional licensing regimes.

The fight over nutritional licensing largely mirrors the debate over occupational licensing more generally. Today, one in four Americans are required to obtain a government license to work in their chosen profession, and there continues to be little evidence that licensing requirements improve health or quality outcomes in any licensed industry.

The Institute for Justice has calculated that New Jersey ranks No. 16 in the nation in occupational licensing burdens, with the average New Jerseyan paying $224 in fees and undergoing 422 days of training to obtain a license. The state recently made national headlines for running elaborate undercover operations against unlicensed furniture movers.

In a state already overburdened by occupational licensing, New Jersey lawmakers should be leery of imposing yet more licensing requirements on citizens. Resisting attempts to crack down on giving diet advice is something all New Jerseyans should be able to get behind.

Jarrett Dieterle is the director of commercial freedom and a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization based in Washington, D.C. Shoshana Weissmann is a policy analyst and digital media specialist for R Street. 

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