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Where Do You Stand on the Supersize Soda Ban?

Where Do You Stand on the Supersize Soda Ban?

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal, announced last month, to ban the sale of sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters and other food service establishments has elicited an avalanche of responses from public health experts, industry representatives, the media and the American public, let alone the New Yorkers who may no longer be able to take a big gulp beginning as early as March 2013.

The responses generally fall into two camps. In one are those who believe that the government has no choice but to intervene given the scale of the obesity epidemic. In the other camp are those who believe that government has no business taking away consumers’ freedom of choice in what they eat or drink.

The Washington Post
, for example, applauds the mayor’s initiative: “We are happy to see Mr. Bloomberg experimenting with serious policies to address obesity, which is more than can be said about most of America’s politicians, and we hope he succeeds.” The New York Times, on the other hand, criticizes the mayor for “overreaching”: “The administration should be focusing its energies on programs that educate and encourage people to make sound choices.”

At one time, I would have agreed with the Times editorial board, that educating American consumers is the best way to address the issue. But education by itself isn’t working. More aggressive measures have to be taken, and urgently, as the number of overweight and obese Americans continues to rise. Government has to intervene on behalf of society as a whole. Obesity-related health care costs are at $150 billion, and the costs owing to loss in productivity are estimated to be $164 billion.

“The behaviors that harm our collective health are not, by and large, the result of bad or foolish individual choices,” writes Ronald Bayer, professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, in an essay about government intervention published in the Times. “These ‘bad habits,’” he continues, “are shaped by our culture, social arrangements and commercial interests. As a consequence, from a public health point of view, there is a moral imperative to intervene to protect us from decisions that make us sick, shorten our lives and burden our health care system.”

By the force of its marketing prowess, political power and financial resources, Big Food has encouraged bad habits that have led to today’s public health crises. “Any whiff [the mayor's ban] gives off of overzealous government intervention,” argues Frank Bruni, food writer and former Times restaurant critic, “must be seen in the context of the billions upon billions of advertising and marketing dollars spent annually by the fast-food industry on exhorting us to pig out.” Here government has a moral imperative to act on our behalf, to counter Big Food with big public policy.

Why has soda and other sugary beverages become the target of so many anti-obesity campaigns? And what is the rationale behind Bloomberg’s proposal to single out the sale of supersize sodas?

“Sugar-sweetened beverages,” Mark Bittman wrote in the Times, “are nothing more than sugar delivery systems, and sugar is probably the most dangerous part of our current diet.” These beverages can’t be considered food any more than “beer and tobacco and, for that matter, heroin, and they have more in common with these things than they do with carrots.” They contribute 10 percent of the calories in the average American diet, but unlike hundreds of thousands of other processed edibles in our food supply, they are not in the least bit defensible as food, as, that is, a “nutritious substance” that promotes “health and good condition.” They are, moreover, the biggest single source of added sugar in our diets, and sugar, recent research has shown, is an insidious toxin.

Notwithstanding the evidence against sugar-sweetened beverages, what exactly are the merits of this particular proposal banning the sale of supersize portions at food service establishments? It seems a somewhat arbitrary restriction. What will it accomplish? Will it reduce the rate of obesity? Will it induce New Yorkers to drink less soda?

“It’s in many senses an absurd and random gesture,” Bruni writes, since New Yorkers can still buy a 20-ounce milkshake with more calories than a soda or order free refills at a restaurant. A limit on the size of the cup that may be sold and purchased, however, forces people to adjust to a new norm. Bloomberg, Bruni writes, is “trying to reroute our expectations and tweak our habits.”

That, Bayer explains, is what government can do here; it can change the norms that guide our behaviors. It can remind us that it isn’t normal to drink 32 ounces of sugar-loaded liquid in one sitting and that, in fact, it is outrageous to do so. At the same time, we have to continue to ask ourselves: “How far should government go in changing social norms, and what policies should it employ in creating a healthier community? There will be debate. There should be. But it ought to occur with full appreciation of the price we pay for inaction or timidity.”

Regulating Big Food appears to be an impossibility. An alternative is for government to help make our food environment more public health-friendly. It’s not anyone’s first choice, but the price paid for inaction is more than we can afford. The proposed ban may not exactly reverse the obesity epidemic, but at least Bloomberg’s trying.

Related Stories:

Big Soda’s Corporate Responsibility… and Yours

Bloomberg Shaking Up Soda Pop with Politics

New Soda Tax in France: Answer to Obesity and Debt Crisis?

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Photo Credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

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161 comments

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5:56PM PDT on Jun 5, 2013

Education is more important, not bans. When alcohol was banned, people found and consumed it anyway. Same thing today with illegal street drugs, people still find and use it even though they know its bad for you.

If our country really knew how bad soda was and other things the government has allowed to be manufactured, they may stop buying them. The government will never ban these man made foods since these companies are lining their pockets with plenty of money through lobbying even though they know these things we consume has the potential to cause cancer or other health related issues. Maybe if enough of us stop purchasing certain foods these corporations will either stop making the stuff or realize if they make a better product they can stay in business.

5:08AM PST on Feb 4, 2013

Its time citizens started taking responsibility for their own actions and it's time governments stopped lying and succumbing to big business.

Once the truth is out there then it's up to individuals what they want to do. If they want to be fat and die early - so be it!

12:18PM PST on Feb 3, 2013

Yeah Kathy, you are right, sugary sodas are bad for you. But it is not Mayor Bloomberg (or government's) job to play "super-nanny" with their citizens.

What is next, mandatory calesthetics?

Maybe they can start a national data base on how many doughnuts or Ring-Dings we eat and send in the "Twinkee police" to slap snacks out of our hands if we eat too much.

No, it is not government's place to make us do "what's good" for us.

11:02AM PST on Feb 3, 2013

I don't like the idea of the govt. telling us what we can and cannot eat/drink, HOWEVER, it is NOT normal to sit and drink 32 oz. of pop at a sitting. I DO think in some instances we need reminding (especially the younger kids) to start limiting our intake of sugar. The companies who produce these drinks don't care about our health (just as Monsanto doesn't care about GMO foods and what they will do to us).
I applaude Mayor Boomberg's courage to try and put a stop to the EXCESSIVE consumption of sugary drinks.

7:41AM PST on Jan 16, 2013

I am shocked by the vote and the number of people that want the government to tell them what to eat, and equally shocked by some of the comments I see here. I guess this is like the seatbelt issue (which I still object to BTW). I don't drink soda at all, but this ban would only make me drink more. I would be sure to get a refill each time, whether I drank it or not. And, BTW, to the reader who commented that diet sodas are also banned... Many studies show that Diet sodas cause obesity more than sugar sodas. So if you are restricting one you better restrict the other.

10:26AM PST on Jan 14, 2013

Why was it ever introduced in the 1st place???

4:24AM PST on Jan 14, 2013

LEaning yes. A place to start. Even though I really am not crazy about Government mandating EVERY little thing@

12:42PM PST on Nov 28, 2012

I agree with someone previously who said there needs to be education than bans made.

We all know soda is bad. That's a given. We all need to know what is *in* the soda, what those chemicals do to our bodies and how they react when drank in large quantities. I believe if we bring more education about this in that manner, it will have somebody second guess getting a bigger sized soda and ingesting more harmful chemicals. Education instead of bans will reform the soda industry better than somebody taking something away just like that.

2:52AM PST on Nov 27, 2012

Thanks for article!

6:18AM PST on Nov 22, 2012

I for myself need more easy to read truth in advertising, and that should be government regulated. I know to read the side of the box, but I need it spelled out for me. Sorry.

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