It is almost impossible to go anywhere in New York City without hearing someone rip Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of sugary drinks over 16oz. The New Yorker ran a cover entitled ‘Soda Noir’ featuring two kids caught in a police spotlight with an illegal supersized drink. Jerry Seinfeld told Grub Street that he preferred the “accelerated Darwinian process of early death”. Jon Stewart was forced to agree with Fox News (It’s that bad!) and Stephen Colbert had to execute his giant pet soda ‘Drinky’ (“You just don’t turn around, Drinky. Just – Just keep staring in the sun, Drinky”). Everyone seems to be taking a swing at the proposed ban.
But… Is it really that bad of an idea?
The proposal is aimed at fighting the very real obesity problem. In New York City, 34% of New Yorkers are overweight and 22% are obese. In addition, 1 in 5 of every kindergarten student is obese. People who are overweight are at increased risks for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, arthritis and cancer. Mayor Bloomberg firmly believes that “New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something,” and this recent proposal is just his latest attempt to attack the problem.
In 2006, New York City banned artificial, artery-clogging trans-fats in food served at restaurants, and it became the first city to require restaurant chains to post calorie counts. The health-conscious mayor also banned smoking in bars and restaurants, city parks and public areas. He has been actively campaigning for soda reduction for a while. His previous proposals to tax soda and limit its purchase with food stamps were both blocked, but the city has been actively campaigning against soda, with disturbing ads plastered on city subways showing soda turn into huge dollops of fat.
Bloomberg’s proposal is not an outright ban; it is a limit to the size of your drink. As Bloomberg said, they’re “not taking anything away”. You will still be able to buy your favorite sugary drink at a restaurant or movie theater, but you will only be able to buy it in containers of 16oz or less. Diet sodas, unsweetened iced teas, alcohol and any drink that is more than half milk will not be affected by the ban. (Milkshakes are safe!) Bloomberg is also not banning free refills, nor is he preventing you from buying more than one 16oz. soda. In addition, grocery stores and convenience stores would be exempt from the measure, so if you’re having a big party, you can still pick up 2 liter bottles. Only places that make and serve food (i.e. the places that are inspected by the health department and have letters grades posted in the window) will have to serve less than 16oz. or face a $200 fine.
So what’s the point?
Soda is a major contributor to obesity. No, it is not the only reason that Americans are fat, but as New York City’s City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said, sugar drinks “are uniquely, strongly associated with this rise in obesity over the last 30 years”. In fact, the average American drinks an estimated 52 gallons of soda and other sweetened drinks every year. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that half of the US population, over the age of two, gulps 2 sugary drinks every day. These beverages contain approximately 52 pounds of sugar for the average American to digest every year. To burn off the sugar from one 20oz can of soda, you’d have to walk 3 miles, which means from Union Square all the way to Brooklyn. Just imagine just how far you’d have to walk to burn off one of those super-sized movie theater goblets.
So Bloomberg’s plan isn’t going to stop you from drinking a lot of soda, if you really want to do that. You can, after all, sit in McDonalds all day and go back for refill after refill after refill after refill … but is that really how you want to spend your day? At the movies, the size limit might make you think twice about whether you’re really thirsty. Do you really want to miss another 5 minutes? Won’t you get sick of crawling over people’s legs? Bloomberg’s plan relies on inconvenience, not prohibition. You are still free to get all you want. It just might not be so easy for you to mindlessly sip down a 64oz jug of coke in the theater. The inconvenience might just make you drink one less soda, which might just make you lose one more pound, which might make you just a little less fat. After all, studies show that even a modest weight of about only 10 pounds can improve your health, make you look a little better and decrease your risk of obesity-related diseases.
Bloomberg’s plan might also change our idea of what ‘normal’ is. When it was first invented, soda pop was a treat for people, like ice cream or candy, not a daily fixture in the American diet. It was bottled in 6.5oz. bottles and that was considered normal. Today, big has become the new normal. Originally, Starbucks’s smallest drink was the ‘short’ cup of coffee (8oz.) but that is no longer offered on the menu. Now, the smallest coffee is “Tall” (at 12oz.) Today, it is difficult to find any bottled drink that is less than 20oz. Our sense of beverage size has become warped and Mr. Bloomberg’s plan is a small step towards restoring normal diet portions.
One of the most popular objections to the proposal is the claim that the ban infringes on individual freedom. If people want to be fat, that’s their right. Okay, maybe. Americans might be free to be fat, but being fat isn’t free. Health care costs for obesity-related diseases are currently at $147 billion and climbing. This costs harms all of us financially since we pay for health care collectively, with insurance premiums paid by the healthy subsidizing the care of the sick. When awareness of the dangers of second-hand smoke increased, we changed our approach and banned smoking in public places. This led to more smokers quitting and a decrease in lung cancer and heart disease. It is now time that we realize that obesity also has effects on us all. We need to start taking measures to put a dent in rising obesity rates and health problems.
Losing weight is hard. It takes a lot of work, it’s not fun, and usually involves eating a lot of healthy ‘rabbit food’. The pounds, so easy to put on, seem to melt off only at a snail’s pace. So why don’t we embrace a policy that will make it harder for us to put on that weight in the first place? Brian Wansink’s study, explained in his book Mindless Eating, showed that people, given large-size buckets of popcorn on the way in to a movie theater, ate 33% more of it then those given medium-sized buckets, even when the popcorn in the big bucket was stale. If it’s there, we’ll eat it. Just like if we can order a huge gallon of coke for just a few more cents, we’ll do it and we’ll drink it all, even if we’re not even that thirsty. So why not remove the temptation? That’s all Mayor Bloomberg’s plan is trying to do. And hey, if you’re really still thirsty after finishing your 16oz. drink, quit whining, and just go get yourself a refill.
– Simone M. Scully