Bloomberg’s Large-Soda Ban: Why This Time I Part Ways with the Mayor

I’ve been grateful for several of Mayor Bloomberg’s health-related pronouncements in recent years.

His ban on smoking in bars and restaurants is a life saver (literally??) for me, given my distaste for second-hand smoke, which pervaded bars and restaurants so powerfully it will be hard for a future American (after hopefully the whole country has followed Bloomberg’s lead) to imagine how it used to be.

Big Gulp

Is this really worse than donuts, or Skittles?

Though his ban on trans fats matters little to me personally because I eat few processed foods, I’m happy to have it banned from the NYC public generally because there’s little use for it and it’s believed to be so darned unhealthy.

But Bloomberg’s latest ban is less well received in my household.  It’s not that I drink soda–I don’t even drink small sodas, let alone the larger-than-16-ounce sodas the mayor has banned from certain NY establishments.  And it’s not that I believe so strongly in freedom of choice (though I do believe in that rather strongly) that I think people should have the power to order a 32 ounce soda if they so desire.  I’m really not that bothered in principle, given how profoundly unhealthy soda is for us, to have people banned from drinking it.  I view it as almost on par with banning heroin and suicide.  Some things we’re better off not being encouraged to do (by their legality and wide availability).

But, given soda’s status as one of only thousands–probably even hundreds of thousands–of food products that are absolutely heinous for us, I’m not thrilled that it’s being singled out in this way.  Why still allow large tubs of ice cream?  Loaves of white bread?  Chocolate shakes?  Donuts?  Pastries?  Waffles?  Skittles?  I don’t really get the ban on sodas.  Soda’s bad for you, so what?  Why do we allow so many other foods that are just as bad, and just as unnecessary?  It sends the weird message that we shouldn’t drink soda, not just because it has so much sugar, but because it’s soda.  Tons of sugar in other foods is totally fine.

Also, I don’t get the size restriction.  Why are we OK drinking 16 ounces of soda?  But not 32?  Should we be allowed small hits of heroin, but not large ones?  Self-mutilation, but not suicide?  I know these comparisons may seem silly, but if soda is such a health evil, why are we letting people sell 16 ounce servings but barring 32 ounce servings?  I know there’s research showing that if people are given larger servings they’ll tend to eat more.  And if a 32 ounce serving is much cheaper per ounce, people may be tempted to go for broke.  But is it worth taking a historic stand, for a half-measure?  And do we really want to tell people it’s OK to drink 16 ounce sodas?

To me, this ban just doesn’t sound right.  With 2/3 of Americans overweight, and half of those obese, we have a national eating disorder.  And it’s not because we suddenly lack willpower; it’s because horrific food choices are all around us.  That’s granted.  But I’m not sure banning large sodas is the way around this.  For once, it’s tougher to justify than the cigarette ban: while smoking in bars and restaurants clearly hurts third parties, soda consumption doesn’t.  (Unless maybe it’s done by a pregnant woman.)  Second, it’s less comprehensive than the ban on trans fats.  That ban banned all trans fats.  This ban only bans a certain quantity of sugar in one particular sugary product.  So it seems arbitrary and half-assed.

If sugar is bad, then let’s do something about it.  But don’t arbitrarily pick one sugary product and ban it above a certain size.  This makes the ban sound frivolous and haphazard, on top of taking these choices out of people’s hands.  If people want sugar, barring 32 ounce sodas won’t keep them from eating it.  We need a better way.

Lest I be criticized for criticizing without offering a viable alternative, how about these:

(1) Commission research to pinpoint exactly the problem with sugar.  How much weight does it put on the average person in how much time, compared to eating a “normal” diet without that sugar?  What exactly the correlation between sugar consumption and diabetes and heart disease?  Why don’t we know these things already?

(2) Pull a page out of the tobacco play-book.  Ban television and radio advertising of sugary products.  (Not just soda; how about all products that include more than, say, 1 calorie of added sugars per every 10 calories in the product?)  Make such sugary products unavailable to minors under the age of 18.  You say the political will isn’t there, for us to do this?  Then go back to point (1).  This is what we did with cigarette smoking.  At least cigarettes didn’t put weight on us, give us diabetes and cause cancer and heart disease.  If sugar’s so bad we need to ban it, then we need to do more than what the Mayor proposes.

Mayor Bloomberg, you’ve never don’t anything half-assed in your life.  Don’t start now.

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3 Responses to Bloomberg’s Large-Soda Ban: Why This Time I Part Ways with the Mayor

  1. Nancy says:

    Hey Doug,
    First time reader to your site. It’s great!
    But I disagree on this point. Yes, sugar overall is bad.
    But the man had to start somewhere. He was not the first mayor to ban smoking so it was not that hard to make a case for putting his foot down in this respect.
    Why just soft drinks? Probably because without knowing it, most overweight NY’ers get too many of their empty calories from soda. Why not ban the drinks altogether? There would be an outcry! Already there’s a well-funded movement against Bloomberg calling for freedom of choice to drink whatever the heck you want. But it’s not really a freedom since all of us as taxpayers have to pay for the under and uninsured who take up space in the emergency rooms from diet-related illnesses for treatment they can’t pay for.
    This ban is just a first step. Let’s wait and see if it works. There have been many ads in the subways for the past year that explain the ill effects of high-calorie beverages. Let’s pull people out of this sugar addiction one baby step at a time, shall we?

    • Doug says:

      Nancy, Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I see your point on each of your thoughts, and clearlu the mayor finds your reasoning persuasive as well. I’m certainly with you on wanting to change the way things are. And maybe this ban is a way to test something out, and maybe indeed just a “first step” with many more to follow.

      I guess something just makes me feel it’s so arbitrary that it’s kind of ridiculous. Since so many people eat out, wouldn’t it be better to ban fast food joints from giving out white bread buns, pizza places from selling white bread crusts, Chinese restaurants from selling white rice and delis from selling white bread sandwiches? Are we really getting more “empty calories” from sodas than from these other sources?

      And if we want to make a change in the city’s health, wouldn’t we be better off publicizing how bad these things are for us? People have no idea. My guess is, a lot of people don’t fully even buy into the idea that soda makes them obese, let alone the bread on their roast beef sandwich. I guess I’d just rather see people truly understand the consequences of their actions and make their own decisions, than have the mayor arbitrarily pick one size order of one unhealthy product and say you can’t have it.

      But that’s no easy solution either. Maybe we’ll get to see just how effective the mayor’s proposed ban is, and be one step closer to an answer.

      Best,
      Doug

  2. Pingback: Beverage and Restaurant Groups Suing NYC to Prevent Large Soda Ban | Organaholic! Organic Food Blog

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