Big-soda ban in New York? Opinions could fill a 32-ounce cup

Give me Big Gulps or give me death.

Everyone’s got an opinion on New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposed ban on the sale of sugary sodas larger than 16 ounces, and most of them are chilly.

According to one Rasmussen poll, only 11% of Americans surveyed had no stance on the ban; 63% opposed it, and 23% were in support.

Yet Bloomberg has stayed on course to implement the regulation, which Reuters reports will likely be passed by the city’s health board later this year despite mocking from such stalwarts of liberal opinion as Jon Stewart and the New York Times and despite intense opposition from the restaurant and soft-drink industries — whose anticipated legal challenges are expected to fall flat.

“There are so many examples where states impose standards on consumer products sold within their borders,” Michelle Mello, a professor of law and public health at Harvard University who has studied obesity, told Reuters. “It seems hard to believe that this would be singled out as unreasonable by a court.”

Bloomberg has already banned smoking in bars and put calorie counts on fast-food menus, after all.

So the debate remains intense, with good reason: The proposed soda ban strikes at the root of a fundamental political disagreement about the role of government — over whether officials should protect Americans’ health at the expense of a little freedom.

“We are a fat country getting fatter and fatter, and these mountains of refined sugar that people ingest are a big part of the reason,” Michael Tomasky writes in Newsweek/Daily Beast. “The costs to the healthcare system are enormous, so the public interest here is ridiculously obvious. Obesity is a killer. Are we to do nothing, in the name of the ‘liberty’ that entitles millions of people to kill themselves however they please, whatever their diabetes treatments costs their insurers?”

That’s the sort of talk that causes sparks to fly from the ears of libertarians, and Reason magazine’s Mike Riggs didn’t disappoint, calling Tomasky’s column “stunningly awful.”

Elsewhere on, Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, took a wonkier approach to the ban’s potential effect.

“Look at the economics behind the ban, which chef Daniel Moody argues would actually subsidize heavy soda drinkers at the expense of those who drink less,” he wrote. “And that’s to say nothing of the fact that in a time of rising unemployment, growth in the food and beverage industry accounted for more than 40% of new jobs (according to recent government data) created in April.”

At Mother Jones, Erik Kain wondered whether the law was enforceable; people could just buy two 16-ounce sodas instead of one 32-ouncer.

“Rather than banning soda, how about having the government just raise taxes on it?” he asked. “Taxing sugary drinks would put downward pressure on consumption of those drinks without any enforcement, and revenue could be pumped into public health and education efforts, effectively killing two birds with one stone.”

Yet Will Wilkinson, over at the Economist, questioned the science behind the assumptions that more soda equals fatter, unhealthier people — or kids, anyway: “The most comprehensive meta-analysis to date of the relationship between the consumption of sugary drinks and body mass index in children and adolescents ‘found that the association between [sugared beverage] consumption and BMI was near zero, based on the current body of scientific evidence.’ ”

He also raised the subtle issue of social class in the mayor’s decision to ban the drinks, noting that large portions of high-calorie red-wine, caramel frappuccinos and artisanal beer weren’t targeted.

“Better, then, to stick with the unimpeachable argument that imbibing vats of soda pop is a disgusting, low-born abuse of liberty not to be tolerated by a civilized people,” he noted — tongue firmly in cheek.

But Gawker’s Drew Magary gave all this a shrug.

“New York city residents were already fully aware that Bloomberg was prone to implementing drastic public health measures, like the 2003 ban on smoking in bars,” he wrote. “And yet, they reelected him.”


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