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Soda's a problem but Bloomberg doesn't have the solution

March 15, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • A giant soda from 7-Eleven would be allowed under the New York City ban that was halted for now by a judge, but one sold by a fast-food restaurant would be banned.
A giant soda from 7-Eleven would be allowed under the New York City ban that… (Justin Lane / European Pressphoto…)

The intentions of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg may be laudable, but it’s wrong for one man, even an elected official and even a well-meaning one at that, to dictate to people how big a cup of sugary soda they’re allowed.

Not that I have tremendous regard for soda. It’s bad for you, especially in large quantities. The evidence against it mounts on a semi-regular basis. But the mayor’s initiative goes further than something like a soda tax, which might aim to discourage people from purchasing something by making it cost a bit more but leaves the decision in their hands. Bloomberg is playing nanny in the worst sort of way by interfering in a basic, private transaction involving a perfectly legal substance. In restaurants and other establishments overseen by the city’s health inspectors, it would have been illegal to sell a serving of most sugary drinks (except fruit juice; I always wonder about that exemption, considering the sugar calories in apple juice) that’s more than 16 ounces.

Convenience stores such as 7-Eleven are overseen by the state and would be exempt, but a Burger King across the street would be restricted. A pizza restaurant would not be able to sell a 2-liter bottle of soda that would be shared out among the children at a birthday party. But they could all have a 16-ounce cup.

The inherent contradictions that make it easy to sneer at such rules have been well-reported and were a good part of why earlier this week a judge stopped the new rules from being implemented. But he also pointed out a deeper problem: Bloomberg essentially made this decision himself. It was approved by the Board of Health, but that’s a board of the administration, appointed by the mayor. That was an overreach that thwarted the system of checks and balances, according to the judge: The separately elected City Council would have to approve the law.

That still leaves the question of whether governments or their leaders can begin dictating the look of an individual’s meal, the portion sizes for each aspect. There are times when government has to step in on obviously dangerous situations — especially those, such as smoking, that affect people other than the person whose behavior would be curbed — but it’s my belief that we want to scrutinize them carefully and keep them to a minimum. For that matter, it’s not as though the mayor is moving to limit sales of tobacco to two cigarettes per transaction.

Not that government has to aid and abet the situation. Schools don’t have to sell junk foods, and, thankfully, after years of sacrificing their students’ health to their desire to raise more money, most of them have stopped allowing vending machines stocked with sodas. Governments are under no obligation to sell such stuff in park or pool vending machines or in their offices. In such cases, government is simply the vendor making a decision about what it wants to sell.

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.

Let’s not forget that scientists and even governments have at times pushed people — with better intentions than food corporations, certainly — into eating high levels of refined carbohydrates and sugars by sending out word that the only thing that really matters when it comes to obesity is to eat a very low-fat diet.

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