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N.Y. mayor 'shocked' by soda law ruling, takes shot at Mississippi law

March 15, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg after a judge struck down the city's proposed ban on super-sized sugary drinks just hours before it was supposed to take effect.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg after a judge struck down the city's… (Seth Wenig / Associated…)

NEW YORK -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday he was “shocked” when a judge this week invalidated an anti-obesity law that would have blocked sales of super-sized sodas, and he took a jab at Mississippi politicians for passing their own legislation to protect fattening food and drink.

“You gotta love it. In the state with the highest rate of obesity, they pass a law that says you can’t do anything about it,” Bloomberg said during his weekly radio interview. The mayor said the Southern state’s action was “so inconceivable” that if someone wrote a movie about it, they’d never find a producer. “It would be so ridiculous.”

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign the bill into law, prohibiting local lawmakers in what is officially the country’s fattest state from doing what New York City has done.  The so-called anti-Bloomberg law, which passed earlier this month, would forbid local governments from restricting portion sizes, requiring nutritional information on meals, and banning toys in meals aimed at children.

State Sen. Tony Smith, a Republican from Picayune, said he was spurred to push for the legislation after New York City’s Board of Health last September passed the controversial soda law. Smith quickly drew support from the state’s Hospitality and Restaurant Assn., which said rules on food and drink sales would be punishing to businesses and their customers.

“The ‘anti-Bloomberg’ bill simply assures consumers freedom of choice on what food, what sizes of soft drinks, and which restaurants they want to patronize,” Smith wrote in an editorial posted on his Facebook page, which also encouraged local governments to try alternatives to slimming down their constituents.

“Create community gardens to provide fresh fruits and vegetables,” he suggested. “Help create more walking paths and bike trails.” Smith also urged schools to mandate physical education and parks departments to offer or expand weight-loss programs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34.9% of adults in Mississippi are overweight or obese, the highest percentage in the nation. In New York, the percentage of overweight or obese adults is 24.5%. California comes in at 23.8%, relatively low but not nearly enough to beat out the slimmest state, Colorado, where the CDC says 20.7% of adults are overweight or obese.

As its nickname suggests, the Mississippi law is in contrast to regulations imposed in New York City during Bloomberg’s three terms in office. In 2008, New York became the first major urban area to require large restaurant chains to include calorie counts on menus. In 2006, it 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.

But on Monday, a state Supreme Court judge said the city went too far when it mandated in September that restaurants, delis, and concession stands would no longer be allowed to sell sugar-filled drinks larger than 16 ounces. The law was to have taken effect last Tuesday and would have affected about 24,000 city-regulated food-service establishments, forcing them to halt sales of sodas and other high-calorie, high-sugar drinks in giant cup sizes.

A lawsuit filed by a coalition of groups including labor unions and representatives of the beverage industry complained that the law was unfair because it would not have affected state-regulated businesses such as supermarkets and convenience stores. That meant that someone could not buy a 32-ounce soda at a fast-food outlet, but they could cross the street to a 7-Eleven and buy a Big Gulp.

The judge agreed and also said the Board of Health did not have the authority to pass such legislation.

Bloomberg, who has made improving the city’s health a cornerstone of his mayoralty, said the city will appeal and win, but he admitted to having been taken aback by Monday’s court decision.

“We were shocked because the law clearly is different than what the judge said it was,” said the mayor, who is in his last term in office. A new mayor is to be elected in November, and Bloomberg said he believes that opponents of the soda rule are hoping to “out-wait this administration” as they fight to block the law in court.

“Hopefully this doesn’t happen, but if it does ... it’ll be incumbent on the next mayor to do something,” he said, insisting that the city’s health laws have improved New Yorkers’ quality of life and given more people a reason to want to live in the nation’s largest city.

In fact, the latest census figures indicate that the Big Apple is indeed getting bigger. For the first time in more than 60 years, more people moved into New York City than left it, according to numbers released this week. They show the population has hit an all-time high of 8,336,696, an increase of 161,564 since 2010. It was the first time since before 1950 that more people arrived.

Bloomberg said the city’s improved health and lifestyle have helped lure newcomers, but he also acknowledged that not everyone has embraced his efforts to change New York.

“They’re probably moving in because the mayor’s only got 291 days left,” he cracked.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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