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New York soda ban won't work, marketing experts say

June 04, 2012|By Mary MacVean
  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban the sale of big sodas from many places.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to ban the sale of big sodas from… (Don Kelsen / Los Angeles…)

Comedian Jon Stewart drank from an oversized soda cup on his show as he bemoaned the New York City mayor’s plan to ban the sale of super-sized sodas from ballparks and other thirst-inducing places. And, Stewart complained, the proposal did what little else could – got him to agree with conservatives.

In fact, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s idea to ban the sale of sugary drinks (not juices or milkshakes) over 16 ounces from sports arenas, restaurants and other spots has many people complaining about the nanny state. Others say it just won’t work and that it targets poor people.

No one wants to be targeted, and the reaction to being told what soft drinks they can buy will probably backfire, says David Just, a professor and food marketing specialist at Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

“It’s so unpopular before it even starts, this won’t even get a fair shake,” Just says.

“Whenever people feel like they’re being restricted they begin to resist. And that creates a real headwind for a policy like this,” he said Saturday by phone.

One possible result is that soda fans will say: “I’ll show them; I’ll drink three sodas,” Just says.

His colleague, Brian Wansink, also criticized the ban, which would take effect next March.

“People buying super-sized sodas want their 32-ounce soft drinks and will find a work-around to the ban. They’ll go to a place that offers fountain refills, or they’ll buy two,” Wansink said in a statement. 

Underlying Bloomberg’s idea and other efforts to combat obesity  is a frustration that’s shared by experts and policymakers, Just says.

A third of Americans are obese, and the costs of attendant ailments such as heart disease and diabetes are enormous. Weight has been an intractable problem – even if people manage to lose excess weight, keeping it off rarely happens over the long term. Many efforts are being targeted at children with the goal of keeping them from becoming overweight in the first place.

Bloomberg has long crusaded to get people to change behaviors to improve their health, targeting foods and smoking, and adding bike lanes.

Plenty of people have spoken out against the mayor’s ideas, but the president of the California Endowment, a health foundation, says the soda ban proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“We need to move Mayor Bloomberg’s effort beyond the five boroughs to all 50 states. Junk drinks are a leading cause of an obesity and excess weight crisis that affects nearly one of every three kids in the United States and half of all kids in poor, rural areas,” Robert Ross said in a statement.

Just says he understands the motivations.

“Because of the political pressure to do something -- and really anything – about obesity, we are trying to throw in a bunch of policies that are not proven,” Just says.

He used as an example the elimination of chocolate milk from schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “If we start to rack up enough of these, there’s not going to be the political will to try something that’s wildly unpopular.”

In addition, the people who buy the most soda are generally poorer, and a ban could feel like it’s targeting a particular class of people, Just says.

Instead, he says, coming up with inducements would be a better approach. Work with industry and retailers, he suggests. One idea might be to offer a consumer who buys one soda the same size diet soda at a discount, Just says.

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