Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin holds up a large soda as she speaks about New… (Pete Marovich / Getty Images )
Soda bans seem like a good idea in theory. Soda has no nutritional value whatsoever. Worse, it’s a sugar bomb. Given the mounting obesity problem in this country, some might think soda bans are an admiral effort to curb our collective waistline, an initiative absolutely worth trying.
In practice, however, research suggests that soda bans would backfire.
“New research shows that prompting beverage makers to sell sodas in smaller packages and bundle them as a single unit actually encourages consumers to buy more soda -- and gulp down more calories -- than they would have consumed without the ban,” writes Melissa Healy in The Times’ Science section. “Not only would thirsty people drink more, but circumventing the big-drink ban by offering consumers bundles of smaller drinks also would mean more revenue for the beverage purveyors, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.” Read on to learn how the study was conducted.
Julie Gunlock, director of the Women for Food Freedom project, probably wouldn’t be surprised by these new findings. In a November Op-Ed in our pages, she argued:
“Research confirms these government efforts are generally ineffective. A 2009 study on New Yorkers who ate fast food found that only half even noticed the government-required calorie information displayed on menu boards. Of those, only 28% said the information influenced their ordering, and researchers found that the customers who noticed the calorie information didn't order food with fewer calories than those who were oblivious. And those four states with soda-specific sin taxes? They rank among the most obese states in the nation. So much for the government's war on obesity.
“Another problem with government meddling is that it can backfire. For instance, the American Heart Assn. warned that trans-fat bans can lead restaurants to replace trans fats with shortening that is high in saturated fat, which, while better than trans fats in some respects, is hardly health food. Researchers at Cornell University observed that while soda taxes succeeded in encouraging people to temporarily reduce their soda consumption, beer sales increased.”
Editorial writer Karin Klein agrees that soda bans are problematic. After a judge put the kibosh on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban, Klein wrote:
“I don’t buy the argument that people are helpless in the face of sugar and that it’s better to have the government rather than the corporations dictate their behaviors. If people are so helpless against soda, the mayor’s edict would be even more meaningless because people would simply buy two 16-ounce cups. But people are not helpless, and it’s worrisome to promote a philosophy that infantilizes the individual. The public is simply ill-informed. It takes a while for people to become aware, but they do and they react. Soda consumption already is slipping nationwide.”
So does that mean soda bans are hopeless? Maybe not. The upside of proposing these bans is that it’s started a conversation and raised awareness about soft drinks. But, as The Times' editorial board concluded last June when Bloomberg introduced his soda ban plan, “Ultimately, society will decide what limits to place on individuals in the name of public health, and officials who go further than their constituents are ready to go will be tossed out at the next election.”