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New York’s Soda Scolds

Tue, 07/03/2012 - 8:00am
Rick Berman, Executive Director, Center for Consumer Freedom

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a proposal to ban the sale of large sodas at restaurants and theaters, the reaction of disbelief from the public was predictable. Incredibly, a few days later Bloomberg’s health advisory board began considering an expansion to rope in milk-based drinks and popcorn.

It’s not surprising that they want to control more food choices. What’s astounding is that they were so honest, so quickly.

In the mindset of the “public health” movement, there is a need to add to the target list of foods that are supposedly contributing to the misnamed obesity epidemic (getting fat isn’t a disease): Snacks and sugar-sweetened drinks are only the beginning.

In this game, however, incrementalism is a key tactic. It’s more politically palatable to start small—with just soda and added-sugar juices—than to grow bigger.

Soda is the low-hanging fruit. Milk-based drinks contain protein, calcium, and other nutrients. But that is no reason to give them a pass. After all, we’re talking about calories, not vitamin deficiencies.

The problem with this soda-first approach, from the standpoint of someone who really cares about health, is a fact that the public health community and I might agree: Banning the sale of large soda won’t slim people down by one lipid cell.

The public health folks may not publicly admit it, but it’s a necessity for them to have a reason to expand their soda ban, once it fails to curb this imagined pandemic, to cover pizza, burgers, and other flavor-of-the-month foods they deem too unhealthful. But for now, they’ll play the game. They need a precedent.

And here’s why the soda ban won’t work: Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages make up less than seven percent of the average person’s calorie intake, according to the National Cancer Institute. Targeting just one food—one that some overweight people may not even consume—won’t shrink the average American’s waistline.

There’s also a ban loophole big enough for a fat person to pass though: People can buy most of the “bad” foods at the supermarket or corner store.

What about expanding the ban to all places that sell food? Let’s treat sugar like a controlled substance!

It sounds crazy, but several activists from the University of California-San Francisco recently editorialized in a respectable journal in favor of regulating sugar like alcohol and tobacco—including carding for soft drinks.

Exhausted from this increasingly draconian food-police regime? Take a break and pour yourself a nice tall glass of orange juice—which has the same number of calories per ounce as soda.

Frankly, most food or drink that you consume to excess will negatively affect your health. If individuals (not companies) are ultimately the responsible party, we should tax anybody who is overweight.

Bloomberg and his fellow nannies have made it clear that they have grand designs for what we ought to be eating. Although their honesty on their plan is commendable, their goals and the means with which they intend to reach the end are repulsive. Consumers have decided they want 20 ounce sodas, not 16 ounce bottles—or two 16 ounce bottles, as Bloomberg comically argues to justify his scheme. Many soda makers have been selling eight ounce cans for the same reason: that is what consumers want.

Unless Bloomberg is going to be the one buying our soda for us, he shouldn’t be the one who decides what size we want.

In classic copycat fashion, Cambridge, Mass., is considering cloning Bloomberg’s ban, reportedly thanks to the prodding of the head of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department. What makes sense in Harvard’s backyard, however, isn’t sensible policy for the rest of us. As William F. Buckley, Jr., once remarked, “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

I think most consumers would agree. For more information about Bloomberg and his self-anointed “food police” allies, visit www.ConsumerFreedom.com.

The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.

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