Column: Is Sacramento’s war on Big Gulps a nanny state move? Or good public policy?
Which one has more sugar, a 16-ounce Monster Energy Drink or a cola of the same size?
The Monster has 55 grams of sugar; the cola has 48.
Which has more calories, a 30-oz. 7-Eleven Big Gulp cola or a 10-ounce bag of Lay’s potato chips?
The Big Gulp has about 350 calories (or fewer depending on the amount of ice); the chips have 1,600.
These and other fun facts I learned while hanging out at 7-Elevens in Eagle Rock, Glendale, Silver Lake and Echo Park, where I did some polling on the relative merits of legislation pending in Sacramento.
We have an obesity epidemic, you may have noticed, along with high rates of diabetes and other diseases linked to poor nutrition. Two bills currently before the state Legislature aim to nudge us into better habits, one by taxing sugary soft drinks and the other by banning super-sized drink portions such as the Big Gulp. Such measures have tanked in the past, and the beverage industry has spent gajillions trying to make sure we maintain our addictions.
So, is singling out soda the way to go?
“Soda is evil,” said Jessica Munoz, a clerk at the Silver Lake 7-Eleven on Hyperion.
“You know how much sugar is in one bottle of Mountain Dew?” she asked me.
I had no clue.
“Seventy-seven grams,” she said.
What, in a 2-liter bottle?
“No, the regular size,” Munoz said. “Twenty ounces.”
I went back to the refrigerator and checked.
She wasn’t kidding.
“I gave up soda,” Munoz said. “I have bad kidneys and the doctor told me if I wanted to see my kids grow up, stop drinking soda.”
And yet she’s not a fan of the legislation.
“I just think, ‘To each his own.’ People are going to eat what they want and drink what they want,” she said.
She’s probably right. Still, Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) wants to limit the size of fountain drinks in stores and restaurants to 16 ounces. And Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) wants a soda tax of 2 cents per ounce or so and says we should use the money to promote fitness.
“I don’t like it,” Kuldip Kaur said at the Eagle Rock 7-Eleven she runs. “It’s not good for business. If you want a bag of potato chips or a pizza, you need soda.”
What about water instead?
“It doesn’t taste good,” she said.
California’s Republican leadership didn’t think much of the legislation, either. They wondered if the Democrats’ next play would be to criminalize pizzas larger than 18 inches in diameter and impose fines for not eating your broccoli.
These may be fair points, but how much credibility can you have on matters of public health if your party looks the other way while the planet melts?
I will say that the more you look at what’s on the shelves of a 7-Eleven, or any convenience or grocery store, the more you wonder why the California Legislature hasn’t tried to ban 90% of it. With some exceptions, sugar, fat and salt are in everything.
I made the mistake of reading the ingredients on one of the most popular candies on the market — Sour Patch Kids — which I eat now and then.
First of all, there is more artificial color in a bag of Sour Patch than the president of the United States has on his entire head. The first three ingredients listed are sugar, invert sugar and corn syrup, which makes you wonder why they call them Sour Patch.
A 5-ounce bag has 108 grams of sugar.
OK, kids, let’s do the math.
That works out to 25 teaspoons of sugar.
“Maybe we should start regulating the size of malt liquor bottles,” said Scott Bowser, a clerk at the Silver Lake 7-Eleven.
As he thought about the legislation, which he does not support, he kept getting more worked up.
“The government subsidizes corn farmers,” he said. “And then we get corn syrup and pump it into all these juice drinks, but we’re not going after those.”
“A 64-ounce soda, nobody needs that,” Bowser went on. “But I think there’s a lot more to fix in this state right now. When infrastructure is crumbling and we’re regulating the size of sodas, something’s wrong. And why do soda and not Slurpees?”
On my tour, several clerks suggested a 16-ounce limit on fountain drinks would easily be circumvented by anyone who bought more than one. Or by anyone who takes advantage of the 7-Eleven offer of reusable jugs, some of which are so big you can use them to bathe small children. You can buy one for anywhere from a few bucks to $9.99 for the 100-ounce behemoth in Echo Park, then get unlimited refills for as little as $1.39.
In my polling, the legislation went down in a landslide, but I did find some supporters. Among them were people I interviewed while they sipped from Big Gulps.
“I usually get the Vitaminwater, and I think it’s true, you shouldn’t drink soda,” said Melody Montalvo as she drank a one-quart Dr. Pepper Super Gulp in the parking lot of the Eagle Rock 7-Eleven. “Trying to help people be healthy is a good thing.”
In Silver Lake, professional dog walker Terence Flynn said he buys a few Super Gulps a day and likes the caffeine jolt, but he goes with diet cola.
“I’m a little bit in favor of a nanny state,” Flynn said. “We have an age limit on when you can buy cigarettes and drive, and I think well-designed legislation can make for a better society.”
But why single out soda and not all the other unhealthy stuff?
“I think because you’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.
Look, we live in a marketing-influenced culture, the whole goal of which is to get us to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have. I understand the desire to legislatively protect us from those influences, but I’d rather see more emphasis on educating us to resist our own worst instincts. If a soda tax does pass, there should be a statewide forum on how to best spend the money to promote healthier choices.
In the meantime, can someone in Sacramento please do me a big favor and introduce a bill banning restaurant refills on chips and salsa?
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