The New York City Board of Health rubber stamped Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s much maligned sugary drink regulation, banning the sale of beverages larger than 16-ounces in restaurants, movie theaters, and food carts. Despite growing disdain among New Yorkers and a groundswell of opposition from the city’s already-struggling small business owners, the city will proceed to regulate New Yorkers’ beverage choices beginning in March 2013.
Bloomberg insists that his sugary-drink ban will help reduce obesity in the city. He also argues it’s really no ban at all, just a tool to help people better understand how much sugar they consume.
Such carefully crafted talking points make the Mayor almost sound reasonable and simply concerned about those New Yorkers who are unable to control their urge to drink a bucket full of soda. Casting his proposal as an informational campaign instead of an outright ban, the Mayor explained last month on MSNBC that “We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do things, we’re simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup.”
The word “forcing” is generally a no-no word for politicians. Yet, instead of condemnation, the Mayor was praised for his leadership. Noted food writer (and food regulation cheerleader) Marion Nestle endorses the strategy of tricking people into better health on her popular blog Food Politics, writing “regulations make it easier for people to eat healthfully without having to think about it.”
New Yorkers should ask themselves: Is it the role of government to force citizens to do or “understand” anything? Where does this new anti-obesity tactic leave free thought, free will, and free choice? Are these freedoms only available to thin Americans, non-soda drinkers, and athletes? What’s the next item the government will decide to force us to understand? The potential list is hardly limited to one’s food and beverage choices.
Despite Bloomberg’s clever word-smithing, support for his drink ban is shrinking. When the Mayor first proposed the ban, 52 percent of New Yorkers approved. Today, only 40 percent approve. This confirms a 2010 Rasmussen poll which found that 86 percent of Americans opposed the government telling them how they should eat or drink and a majority opposed taxing snack foods and sodas.
Lingering support for the Mayor’s drink proposal likely stems from the false hope that it will lower the city’s obesity rate. Yet, the reality is that these sin taxes rarely do anything to sway human behavior. There are various studies on both sides of the sin tax issue, but most reasonable people understand that the Mayor’s idea is doomed if only because his ban fails to address the real drivers of obesity: eating too much and exercising too little.
The ban is unlikely to change New Yorkers’ bodies, but it will be a major headache for consumers and businesses alike. Consumers may find it annoying to juggle the multiple cans of soda they’ll be forced to purchase if their thirst demands more than the 16-ounces the Mayor allows them. Yet businesses will have a more challenging juggling act to do in order to comply with the new regulations and to simply stay afloat.
First, the ban applies only to certain businesses—restaurants, movie theaters and food carts. That puts them at a disadvantage since you can still get your Big Gulp of soda from a grocery store or bodega. While soft drinks are banned, one is still permitted to get their sugar fix from fruit juices—which often contain even more sugar than soda. Beer and other alcoholic drinks—another big source of sugar—are also exempt. Party on!
Mayor Bloomberg will also allow New Yorkers a big helping of liquid sugar if that beverage contains milk. That’s good news for fans of those coffee/milkshake confections sold in most coffee houses. High-five to Mayor Bloomberg for providing kids an incentive to turn to high-fat and high-sugar milkshakes instead of plain old soda.
That’s generally what happens with these sorts of government interventions. A proposal designed to help solve one problem results in a number of other problems. The Mayor’s beverage ban will be no different. He may want New Yorkers to think he’s taking a brave stand against obesity, but really Mayor Bloomberg is doing little more than abusing his powerful office, bloating government, causing higher food costs and taking choices away from consumers.
That’s no fix for New York.
Julie Gunlock is director of Women for Food Freedom project at the Independent Women’s Forum.