New York City's Board of Health voted to ban the sale of sugary sodas… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK — New York City opened a new front in the war on obesity Thursday by becoming the first U.S. city to limit the size of sugar-filled drinks in restaurants, setting up a battle with beverage industry supporters who say the mayor's health initiatives have crossed the line from annoying to undemocratic.
The city's Board of Health, whose members are appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, passed the measure 8 to 0, with one abstention. Opponents vowed to fight the law, which takes effect in six months.
"A legal option is definitely on the table," said Eliot Hoff of New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a coalition of businesses and individuals formed to fight what it calls a ban, but what Bloomberg calls portion control.
Starting in March, the city's 24,000 restaurants, delis, food trucks and concession stands will be prohibited from selling sugary sodas such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Sprite in containers larger than 16 ounces — sizes that most restaurants consider a small or medium drink. No longer will sugary super-sized be an option, but consumers can purchase as many 16-ounce drinks as they want. The fine print in the law bans nonalcoholic drinks that contain added sweeteners with more than 25 calories per 8 fluid ounces.
Health inspectors who visit eateries regularly will check for violations and could impose $200 fines.
Grocery stores are exempt because they are regulated by the state, not the city. Milkshakes and coffee-based drinks — such as Starbucks' 24-ounce Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino, which contains nearly 600 calories when topped with whipped cream, are not affected by the law either.
Health officials cited the nutritional value in the milk as one reason for the exemption, but critics said it underscored what they considered the arbitrary nature of the law.
"It's the height of chutzpah," said Matt Greller, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Theater Owners of New York State, whose concession stands will have to abide by the law. Greller portrayed the law as a violation of New Yorkers' basic freedom to eat and drink what they want, where they want.
"If you want to go get a pizza and a liter of lemonade to share with your family, you will no longer be able to do that," he said. "What's next — are they going to go after popcorn, or the number of French fries you can eat?"
For all the hyperbole behind the debate, the law has sparked discussion on how best to manage the city's — and the country's — collective weight problem. According to the city, 58% of New Yorkers are overweight or obese, and nearly 40% of the city's public school children are obese or overweight. The city blames much of the problem on New Yorkers' consumption of sugary drinks, and on growing portion sizes.
Health officials said they were obligated to combat what Bloomberg called a "disease" spreading across New York, especially in low-income neighborhoods and among children, putting them at risk for diabetes and heart disease.
"When I get out of the subway every morning, I see more people who are suffering from obesity, people who have amputations, people who are unable to walk, people who are unable to breathe.... I see the crisis every single day and I feel that to not act would really be criminal," said Susan Klitzman, an epidemiologist and director of the Urban Public Health Program at Hunter College.
Klitzman was one of eight board members who supported the soda law; nobody voted against it, and there was one abstention, by Sixto R. Caro, a doctor who said he was skeptical about how much good the measure would do to combat obesity.
Bloomberg compared opposition to the measure to the outcry that has accompanied laws that once seemed inconceivable but which gained acceptance, including bans on lead-based paint and smoking in offices and restaurants.
Under Bloomberg, New York has set the pace for many recent health-related laws.
In 2008, New York became the first major urban area to require large restaurant chains to include calorie counts on menus. Similar laws have since been adopted elsewhere, and on Wednesday, McDonald's began posting calorie counts on its menus nationwide. In 2006, the city passed the nation's first law requiring restaurants to drastically cut the use of artificial trans fats in prepared food. Last year, it banned smoking in most public areas, including beaches, parks and pedestrian plazas.
"Whenever you change something, you have a lot of complaints," said Bloomberg, predicting that New Yorkers would get used to the latest rule as they have others. "Do you really think people want to go back and ... let people use lead-based paint on windows where kids chew on it? I don't think so."