New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on the sale of large-sized sodas or sugary drinks — the first in the nation — at restaurants, movie theaters and food carts, in an effort to combat obesity. More than half New York City’s adults are obese or overweight, says Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, and sweetened drinks are to blame for up to half of the rise in obesity rates.
Starting as early as March of next year, any sweetened drink that is 16 fluid ounces (equivalent to a medium-sized cup of coffee and smaller than the average soda bottle) or more would be banned. Included would be sugary drinks including soda, energy drinks and pre-sweetened ice tea, whether served in delis, fast-food restaurants or sports arenas.
The New York City Beverage Association is not happy, commenting about the “New York City health department’s unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks” and how “zealous proposals just distract from the hard work that needs to be done” in the fight against obesity. But Dr. Farley points out that obesity rates are higher in the city in areas where the consumption of sugary beverages is more common and that about a third of New Yorkers drink about one sugary drink per day.
The city’s Board of Health still needs to vote on the mayor’s proposal; as Bloomberg (dubbed “big soda Scrooge” in the New York Daily News) appointed all of its members, approval seems likely. The mayor has made public health a central feature of his tenure in office, having also banned smoking in restaurants and parks, prohibited the use of artificial trans fat in restaurant food and made it mandatory that health inspection grades be posted in restaurant windows.
How effective the big soda ban will be remains to be seen. One woman interviewed in the New York Daily News says she’ll just buy two medium sodas.
NPR’s The Salt blog suggests that the ban, while stemming from the best intentions, may not affect obesity rates at all. The proposed ban does not affect a whole other category of large-size drinks, those containing at least 70 percent fruit juice as well as lattes, coffee drinks or milkshakes that contain at least 51 percent dairy (and an awful lot of calories). David Just, a professor of behavioral economics at Cornell University, points out that the ban overlooks why people tend to buy large-size sodas, because they see the price per ounce and realize they get more (literally) for their money.
In Cornell’s experiments on food and behavior, if people are told that they can’t have a large size for health reasons, they tend to fight it. So for example, instead of a 64 oz. soda, they may go buy eight 8 ounce bottles, he says.
Also, Just says, soda is just one small piece of the obesity puzzle, and it’s ultimately pretty hard to pin a whole epidemic on one item.
Still, keep in mind how supersized servings of drinks and food have become in the past 50 years in the US. In the 1950s, a 7 ounce soda was the norm. By those standards, 16 ounces of a sugary drink is plenty — and, indeed, there’s no ban on how big a serving of plain old water we, or New Yorkers, can drink.
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Photo by Ian Wilson