NYC soda ban: Admirable or too intrusive?


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Last Wednesday, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg sparked national controversy when he announced proposed legislation that would ban the sale of sugary drinks in containers holding more than 16 ounces in an effort to slow the obesity epidemic.

If the proposal passes, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, delis and street vendors will not be able to sell extra-large sugary beverages — whether in fountain drink form or in bottles and cans — beginning in March 2013. Violating the law could result in a fine as high as $200. Groceries and convenience stores would be exempt, allowing consumers to still stock up on 2-liter bottles at their local supermarket; and the ban would not affect the sale of diet sodas, fruit juices, milk-based drinks or alcoholic beverages.

This doesn’t mean New Yorkers can’t drink more than 16 ounces of soda at a time. If they so choose, they can get refills — even free refills if the restaurant offers them — or buy two smaller drinks instead of the extra-large one. Critics of the ban argue that if people want to drink an enormous amount of soda, they’ll find a way to do it anyway; but Bloomberg hopes that eliminating the convenience of having all that soda in one big container will discourage people from consuming so much.

Currently, more than half of New York City adults are obese or overweight, according to the New York Times, and the mayor believes it’s about time we did something about it. “New York City is not about wringing your hands,” Bloomberg argued. “It’s about doing something.”

This isn’t the first controversial step Bloomberg has taken to encourage healthy eating. Those health ratings you see on restaurant windows? Bloomberg insisted they be placed there. He also prohibited artificial trans fat in restaurant food. In 2010, he attempted to prohibit the use of food stamps for soda, and last year he called for a higher tax on the sugary drinks — neither of these proposals were passed.


Why soda?
McDonald’s challenged Bloomberg’s ban last week when the company tweeted: “@MikeBloomberg We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them.” The problem, though, is that consumers haven’t been making the right choices. One out of every eight deaths in America is caused by an illness directly related to overweight and obesity, according to the Office of the Surgeon General. And the consumption of sugary drinks — which is associated with weight gain and diabetes — contributes to this statistic.

Nancy Huehnergarth, co-founder and executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, explained why it makes sense to target sugary drinks in the Huffington Post: “They are non-nutritious, fail to create a sensation of fullness and therefore can stealthily add hundreds of additional calories each day. Americans consume 200 to 300 more calories daily than 30 years ago, with the largest single increase due to sugary drinks, according to a 2005 study in the Annual Review of Public Health.”

It’s no surprise we’re drinking too much of the sweet stuff. As a recent infographic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicted, the size of the average restaurant soda was about 7 ounces in the 1950s; today, it’s 42 ounces. With our country’s serving sizes so out of whack, it’s hard to say no.


The public’s response
Unsurprisingly, Bloomberg’s recent announcement has led to public outcry about the government taking away our freedom and taking a step too far into our personal lives. Others have voiced their support of the mayor’s bold move. Alec Baldwin commended Bloomberg’s proposal in a Huffington Post piece on Friday: “I think Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right. At least in spirit. The need to understand and then decisively act upon the latest findings regarding sugar consumption, diabetes, overall nutritional guidelines and policies, and the public health crisis created by the U.S. obesity epidemic is urgent.”

To examine the issue, let’s analyze the various arguments being thrown out there, both for and against the measure:


“If people want to be fat, they should be allowed to be fat. This is Amurrica!”
“We’re a country based on freedom,” say critics of the proposed soda ban. “This is a violation of our rights.” First of all, we’ve never been “free.” If you want to live here, you have to follow certain rules. We’ve never been allowed to do whatever the hell we want. You’re required to wear a seatbelt in the car; otherwise you get ticketed. You also have to wear a helmet in many states if you’re riding a bike — you can’t just say, “It’s my head. If I want to crack it open, I should be allowed to crack it open.” You’re not allowed to get high on heroin, cocaine or crack. You’re not allowed to drunkenly stagger around the neighborhood with an open 40-ounce of Budweiser, or poop in the subway station, though neither of these things would be considered very unusual in New York.

These laws were established to benefit others, not just the individuals who follow them — and sometimes the benefit isn’t health-related but economically related. According to the Washington Post, 36% of Americans are excessively overweight, and treatment for overweight-related conditions cost the United States $190 billion a year. If you get your insurance through your employer, obesity is increasing your health insurance by an average of $150 a year in 1998 dollars, according to a report from the Stan Dorn Urban Institute.

So while some people may argue that their health is their own business, those with unhealthy lifestyles — not just excessive eating — are contributing to the healthcare price tag that comes out of our wallets. With about 36% of American adults and 17% of American children obese, it’s fair to say we’ve got ourselves an expensive crisis on our hands.

Now, if you argue instead that this particular strategy is too intrusive, you may have a point. If the government can limit soda sizes, who’s to say it won’t start telling you how much alcohol you can have at dinner or how big your slice of cheesecake should be when you splurge on dessert at a restaurant? Maybe I want that giant slice of cheesecake for my birthday since I don’t typically indulge in it. I’m not going to order two; that’s absurd. But shouldn’t I be allowed to eat an excessive amount if I want to for this special occasion? Bloomberg’s proposal could be crossing that fine line between protecting people and interfering with their ability to make their own choices.


“Education and awareness instead!”
Some critics of the proposed soda ban insist that restrictions aren’t the answer; educational campaigns and strategies that promote awareness are the way to go. Bettina Elias Siegel — former lawyer, freelance writer and blogger at The Lunch Tray — suggested slapping non-nutritive sugary beverages with a warning label.

This type of awareness-promoting strategy was enacted back in 2008 — by Bloomberg — when a New York City law was passed requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. Unfortunately, the law didn’t have the effect policy-makers hoped for. A 2011 New York University study found that more than half of teenagers said they didn’t even notice the calories on the menu, and consumers were ordering the same menu items they were ordering before the law went into effect.

On the other hand, this is only one failed awareness strategy, and some health experts believe educating the public has made a difference. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the New York Times that all of the anti-obesity and health-conscious awareness campaigns have not fallen on deaf ears — American consumption of carbonated sugary drinks dropped by 24% between 1998 and 2011. Jacobson stated that this improvement was associated with “general health consciousness, the availability of bottled water, low-carbohydrate diets like Atkins and the South Beach, the removal of soft drinks from school and the growing publicity of information linking soft drinks to obesity and diabetes.”

Even if education and awareness work, do they work fast enough? A recent CDC report predicted that 42% of Americans will be obese of 2030 — not overweight, but obese. That’s a terrifying number. It could be argued that this is a health crisis requiring something more drastic than awareness.


“But I get more value by buying a 32-ounce soda.”
Some people complain that it’s more cost-effective to buy an extra-large drink and split it with a friend than to buy two smaller ones. To this we say: You’re probably right. But if that’s the only argument you have, it’s not strong enough. Why not pay $1 more when you go to a restaurant and buy individual, moderately sized drinks if — keyword being “if” — the ban is going to benefit the rest of the nation? I mean, how often do you actually split sodas with a friend?


“I’m all about the government doing something about this obesity epidemic, but is this really an effective strategy?”
No one can definitively predict whether or not the ban would be effective. It’s possible that consumers will complain about the inconvenience and added expense but still buy two small drinks in the place of one large one. David Just, a professor and food marketing specialist at Cornell University, told the LA Times: “Because of the political pressure to do something — and really anything — about obesity, we are trying to throw in a bunch of policies that are not proven.”

At least two studies would disagree. A 2005 study showed that moviegoers would eat 34% more popcorn if it was in a large container rather than a medium container — even though the popcorn was stale. And a Belgian study published this past May in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that children ate 25% less when given cookies split in half than when they were given whole cookies.

Still, it’s uncertain if the soda ban would have the same results, and it’s an awfully invasive law to pass without knowing its effectiveness.


“People whined about the indoor smoking ban too, but they eventually adjusted.”
Plenty of people are comparing this to Bloomberg’s ban on indoor smoking in 2003. Larry Cohen, executive director of the Prevention Institute, said: “We heard the same complaints when we took the lead out of paint and gasoline and when we took smoking out of the workplace. Changing norms can feel jarring, but it saves lives. When was the last time you heard someone musing out loud about how they miss lead paint or smoking in the office?”

While Cohen has a point — no one argues that they should be allowed to smoke in the office or restaurants anymore — the ban on indoor smoking has one major differentiator from the potential ban on large sugary drinks: Indoor smoking was threatening the health of everyone in the room, not just the health of the person choosing to smoke. Risking your own health is one thing, but potentially hurting others around you from secondhand smoke is another. While others’ obesity affect all of us indirectly — we help pay for the medical conditions caused by obesity — it’s not the equivalent of impairing someone else’s health. That’s one of the reasons this potential ban is so controversial; we can’t think of a comparable precedent.


What about taxing?
Unfortunately, Bloomberg’s previous idea of taxing soda in order to reduce consumption was shot down by the legislature. Some critics believe this would have been a fairer, more effective way of curbing obesity. And actually, a national poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53% of Americans supported an increased tax on sodas and sugary drinks in order to help pay for healthcare reform.

Thirty-three states currently tax soda, but the taxes are too small (about 3%) to generate significant results. Yale University’s Jason Fletcher researched the link between soda taxes and soda consumption and found that each 1% increase in soda taxes was associated with a 0.003-point drop in body mass index, according to the Washington Post. Fletcher was quoted saying “the 0.003 points is less than one-thousandth of what a borderline obese person would need to lose to become borderline normal weight.”

Thus, a significantly higher tax rate than 3% would need to be applied to sugary beverages for this strategy to be effective.


What we think
Bloomberg has the right attitude. We applaud him for his efforts to improve our health, but he’s going about it the wrong way. The proposed ban infringes too much on our right to make our own choices and just seems too punitive. Plus, if this backfires and consumers really do end up buying two smaller drinks — which would cost more than just one extra-large one — the soda companies will be the ones benefiting.

If the city instead passed a fairly high sugary drink tax, we could slow the obesity epidemic AND put the money the government gets from the tax toward paying that hefty healthcare bill that obesity-related conditions contribute to. But until the city legislature is ready for such a tax, we won’t be seeing this any time soon. The next best thing is education and awareness.


Tell us: Do you support the proposed ban on large sugary drinks? What do you think needs to be done to fight the country’s rising obesity rate?