The Soda Ban: Admirable or Too Intrusive?
HellaWella dissects the new proposals banning large sodas in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles
"Education and awareness instead!"
Some critics of the proposed soda ban insist that restrictions aren’t the answer; educational campaigns and strategies that promote awareness are the way to go. Bettina Elias Siegel — former lawyer, freelance writer, and blogger at The Lunch Tray — suggested slapping non-nutritive sugary beverages with a warning label.
This type of awareness-promoting strategy was enacted back in 2008 — by Bloomberg — when a New York City law was passed requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. Unfortunately, the law didn’t have the effect policy-makers hoped for. A 2011 New York University study found that more than half of teenagers said they didn’t even notice the calories on the menu, and consumers were ordering the same menu items they were ordering before the law went into effect.
On the other hand, this is only one failed awareness strategy, and some health experts believe educating the public has made a difference. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The New York Times that all of the anti-obesity and health-conscious awareness campaigns have not fallen on deaf ears — American consumption of carbonated sugary drinks dropped by 24 percent between 1998 and 2011. Jacobson stated that this improvement was associated with "general health consciousness, the availability of bottled water, low-carbohydrate diets like Atkins and the South Beach, the removal of soft drinks from school and the growing publicity of information linking soft drinks to obesity and diabetes."
Even if education and awareness work, do they work fast enough? A recent CDC report predicted that 42 percent of Americans will be obese of 2030 — not overweight, but obese. That’s a terrifying number. It could be argued that this is a health crisis requiring something more drastic than awareness.
"But I get more value by buying a 32-ounce soda."
Some people complain that it’s more cost-effective to buy an extra-large drink and split it with a friend than to buy two smaller ones. To this we say: You’re probably right. But if that’s the only argument you have, it’s not strong enough. Why not pay $1 more when you go to a restaurant and buy individual, moderately sized drinks if — keyword being "if" — the ban is going to benefit the rest of the nation? I mean, how often do you actually split sodas with a friend?
"I’m all about the government doing something about this obesity epidemic, but is this really an effective strategy?"
No one can definitively predict whether or not the ban would be effective. It’s possible that consumers will complain about the inconvenience and added expense but still buy two small drinks in the place of one large one. David Just, a professor and food marketing specialist at Cornell University, told the LA Times: "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."
At least two studies would disagree. A 2005 study showed that moviegoers would eat 34 percent more popcorn if it was in a large container rather than a medium container — even though the popcorn was stale. And a Belgian study published this past May in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that children ate 25 percent less when given cookies split in half than when they were given whole cookies.
Still, it’s uncertain if the soda ban would have the same results, and it’s an awfully invasive law to pass without knowing its effectiveness.
"People whined about the indoor smoking ban too, but they eventually adjusted."
Plenty of people are comparing this to Bloomberg’s ban on indoor smoking in 2003. Larry Cohen, executive director of the Prevention Institute, said: "We heard the same complaints when we took the lead out of paint and gasoline and when we took smoking out of the workplace. Changing norms can feel jarring, but it saves lives. When was the last time you heard someone musing out loud about how they miss lead paint or smoking in the office?"
While Cohen has a point — no one argues that they should be allowed to smoke in the office or restaurants anymore — the ban on indoor smoking has one major differentiator from the potential ban on large sugary drinks: Indoor smoking was threatening the health of everyone in the room, not just the health of the person choosing to smoke. Risking your own health is one thing, but potentially hurting others around you from secondhand smoke is another. While others’ obesity affect all of us indirectly — we help pay for the medical conditions caused by obesity — it’s not the equivalent of impairing someone else’s health. That’s one of the reasons this potential ban is so controversial; we can’t think of a comparable precedent.
What about taxing?
Unfortunately, Bloomberg’s previous idea of taxing soda in order to reduce consumption was shot down by the legislature. Some critics believe this would have been a fairer, more effective way of curbing obesity. And actually, a national poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of Americans supported an increased tax on sodas and sugary drinks in order to help pay for healthcare reform.
Thirty-three states currently tax soda, but the taxes are too small (about 3 percent) to generate significant results. Yale University’s Jason Fletcher researched the link between soda taxes and soda consumption and found that each 1 percent increase in soda taxes was associated with a 0.003-point drop in body mass index, according to the Washington Post. Fletcher was quoted saying "the 0.003 points is less than one-thousandth of what a borderline obese person would need to lose to become borderline normal weight."
Thus, a significantly higher tax rate than 3 percent would need to be applied to sugary beverages for this strategy to be effective.
What we think:
Bloomberg has the right attitude. We applaud him for his efforts to improve our health, but he’s going about it the wrong way. The proposed ban infringes too much on our right to make our own choices and just seems too punitive. Plus, if this backfires and consumers really do end up buying two smaller drinks — which would cost more than just one extra-large one — the soda companies will be the ones benefiting.
If the city instead passed a fairly high sugary drink tax, we could slow the obesity epidemic and put the money the government gets from the tax toward paying that hefty healthcare bill that obesity-related conditions contribute to. But until the city legislature is ready for such a tax, we won’t be seeing this any time soon. The next best thing is education and awareness.
Tell us: Do you support the proposed ban on large sugary drinks? What do you think needs to be done to fight the country’s rising obesity rate?
— Melissa Valliant, HellaWella
More From HellaWella: