Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s massively inflated ego isn’t the only thing he has in common with George Armstrong Custer. Like the Army officer at Little Bighorn, Bloomberg is in the battle of his life, to save — or control — your life.
As you may recall, in March of last year, Bloomberg’s plan to limit the sale of large containers of high-calorie beverages was struck down by New York State Supreme Court Justice Milton A. Tingling in a ruling the New York Times characterized as “an unusually critical opinion.”
Calling Bloomberg’s drink restrictions “arbitrary and capricious,” Justice Tingling explained that the ban was impractical and would be impossible to enforce fairly because of the many loopholes and huge number of exemptions. For example, while Bloomberg’s ban would apply to restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas, and delis, other businesses were exempt, like convenience stores, which conspicuously sell the very large sodas that Mayor Bloomberg was targeting.
In response to Justice Tingling’s ruling, Bloomberg called a press conference and vowed to appeal, declaring: “I’ve got to defend my children, and yours, and do what’s right to save lives.” One assumes “saving lives” is one of the many “good deeds” Bloomberg believes have earned him a place in heaven.
And another skirmish in that battle for the lives of New Yorkers — we’ll call it the Battle of the (not so) Little Big Gulp — began on Wednesday when city lawyers, with water bottles firmly in hand, faced a panel of State Court of Appeals judges and explained, with no visible embarrassment, why it’s appropriate for the City of New York to care about the size of the container a person chooses when purchasing a cold beverage at the corner pizza shop or at the local movie theater.
Reports on the court proceedings suggest the city’s lawyers tried to make the case that the Board of Health’s ban on large sugary beverages isn’t materially different from the Board’s 1959 ban on toxic lead paint, or from the times,in the 19th century when government officials evacuated poor areas of the city to prevent the spread of cholera or yellow fever.
Here’s the problem for those lawyers: There is simply no solid scientific evidence that soda and other sweetened beverages pose anything like the dangers of lead paint, let alone terrifying infectious diseases. And there is even less evidence to suggest that limiting container sizes in eating establishments and sports venues would reduce the consumption of sugary beverages, never mind improve people’s health more broadly.
News reports show that the judges saw the potential for a slippery slope if they overturned Justice Tingling’s ruling. According to the New York Times, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman asked, “Where do you draw the line?” adding, “Where do we say it’s O.K., as opposed to banning hamburgers or frankfurters or whatever it might be?”
Yes, where do we draw the line? Why stop at the foods and beverages that New Yorkers and visitors to the city consume? We don’t just have to worry about restrictions on hamburgers, frankfurters, pizza, French fries, bacon, and ice cream. The Board of Health — all of whose members are appointed by the mayor — might also start banning other “risky behaviors,” like certain sexual behaviors and recreational activities deemed too dangerous.
New Yorkers — and all Americans, for that matter — should know that this case represents more than just one’s right to drink a gigantic soda. This case is a major test for how city boards of health and other powerful government bureaucracies might act in the future.
If public officials are given carte blanche to do whatever they deem necessary to, as Bloomberg put it, “defend your children” and “do what’s right to save lives,” what activities will be off limits in the eyes of your friendly government minder?
— Julie Gunlock is with the Independent Women’s Forum.