Bloomberg Big-Soda Ban: A Nuanced Plan That’s Healthy For NYC

Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to ban sugary drinks and soda above 16-ounces has been a victim of criticism and derision.

Critics say the measure will be ineffective because it does not limit the size of dairy-based drinks, like milkshakes and fruit juices, which often contain high amounts of sugar and are calorie laden. Because the effort targets bodegas, restaurants, food carts, and movie theaters, but not convenience and grocery stores, critics say it is arbitrary.

The critics have it all wrong. They do not understand the plan, its impetus, and the beneficial effects on public health.

Obesity is a pandemic nationally, but also a local problem. Over half of all adult New Yorkers are either overweight or obese, and half of all elementary school children are unhealthily overweight. This is a serious problem effecting nearly ever facet of life that demands immediate action.

Specifically, this is a crisis for minorities. A higher percentage of Hispanic and African-American youth are obese than the national average. Because of a combination of socio-economic factors, minorities are at higher risk of becoming obese. This problem is compounded by the fact that soda companies specifically target minority youth. A study by Yale’s Rudd Center found that African-American youth saw 80-90% more ads for sugary drinks than did white children, while Hispanic youth saw 49% more.

Measures proposed in the past, like the statewide tax on soda, were defeated due to the efforts of beverage industry lobbyists. Another plan to restrict food stamps from being used on soda was blocked by federal regulators. This time, Bloomberg has wisely chosen to circumvent a messy process that could be derailed by lobbyists and special interest. “New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something,” the Mayor correctly noted. Therefore, he is instead opting for a small, measured plan that can be implemented with minimal interference.

Soda size will only be restricted at venues regulated by the Department of Health, like restaurants and other places where food is prepared. In this way, the city will be able to limit ‘immediate consumption,’ or say, consuming a 20-ounce bottle of sugary soda with lunch, rather than ‘domestic consumption,’ or permitting someone to buy a large bottle at a grocery store for his entire family to drink over an extended period of time. This nuance conveniently fits into the Mayor’s immediate plan.

New Yorkers still have the option of buying soda, and as much of it as they want. “Your argument, I guess, could be that it’s a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32 ounce,” Mayor Bloomberg noted wryly. “I don’t think you can make the case that we’re taking things away.”

Differentiating between healthy dairy-based or juice products and unhealthy ones, from the position of a regulator, is difficult. The formula to decide which ones to restrict and which ones not to would surely be an arbitrary one. Deciding to not touch them is an exercise is restraint, not timidity.

And this is the plan’s fundamental strength, as well as the main source of confusion about it: it is measured, nuanced, and practical. Its critics mistake this for either timidity or a failure of vision, but this is farthest from the truth.

Mayor Bloomberg has long led the way when it comes to public health policy. As the New York Times notes,