The Soda Ban: Admirable or Too Intrusive?

HellaWella dissects the new proposals banning large sodas in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg sparked national controversy when he announced proposed legislation that would ban the sale of sugary drinks in containers holding more than 16 ounces in an effort to slow the obesity epidemic.

If the proposal passes, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, delis, and street vendors will not be able to sell extra-large sugary beverages — whether in fountain drink form or in bottles and cans — beginning in March 2013. Violating the law could result in a fine as high as $200. Groceries and convenience stores would be exempt, allowing consumers to still stock up on 2-liter bottles at their local supermarket; and the ban would not affect the sale of diet sodas, fruit juices, milk-based drinks, or alcoholic beverages.

This doesn’t mean New Yorkers can’t drink more than 16 ounces of soda at a time. If they so choose, they can get refills — even free refills if the restaurant offers them — or buy two smaller drinks instead of the extra-large one. Critics of the ban argue that if people want to drink an enormous amount of soda, they’ll find a way to do it anyway; but Bloomberg hopes that eliminating the convenience of having all that soda in one big container will discourage people from consuming so much.

Currently, more than half of New York City adults are obese or overweight, according to The New York Times, and the mayor believes it’s about time we did something about it. "New York City is not about wringing your hands," Bloomberg argued. "It’s about doing something."

This isn’t the first controversial step Bloomberg has taken to encourage healthy eating. Those health ratings you see on restaurant windows? Bloomberg insisted they be placed there. He also prohibited artificial trans fat in restaurant food. In 2010, he attempted to prohibit the use of food stamps for soda, and last year he called for a higher tax on the sugary drinks — neither of these proposals were passed.

Why soda?
McDonald’s challenged Bloomberg’s ban last week when the company tweeted: "@MikeBloomberg We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them." The problem, though, is that consumers haven’t been making the right choices. One out of every eight deaths in America is caused by an illness directly related to overweight and obesity, according to the Office of the Surgeon General. And the consumption of sugary drinks — which is associated with weight gain and diabetes — contributes to this statistic.

Nancy Huehnergarth, co-founder and executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, explained why it makes sense to target sugary drinks in the Huffington Post: "They are non-nutritious, fail to create a sensation of fullness, and therefore can stealthily add hundreds of additional calories each day. Americans consume 200 to 300 more calories daily than 30 years ago, with the largest single increase due to sugary drinks, according to a 2005 study in the Annual Review of Public Health."

It’s no surprise we’re drinking too much of the sweet stuff. As a recent infographic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicted, the size of the average restaurant soda was about 7 ounces in the 1950s; today, it’s 42 ounces. With our country’s serving sizes so out of whack, it’s hard to say no.

The public’s response
Unsurprisingly, Bloomberg’s recent announcement has led to public outcry about the government taking away our freedom and taking a step too far into our personal lives. Others have voiced their support of the mayor’s bold move. Alec Baldwin commended Bloomberg’s proposal in a Huffington Post piece on Friday: "I think Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right. At least in spirit. The need to understand and then decisively act upon the latest findings regarding sugar consumption, diabetes, overall nutritional guidelines and policies, and the public health crisis created by the U.S. obesity epidemic is urgent."

To examine the issue, let’s analyze the various arguments being thrown out there, both for and against the measure:

"If people want to be fat, they should be allowed to be fat. This is Amurrica!"
"We’re a country based on freedom," say critics of the proposed soda ban. "This is a violation of our rights." First of all, we’ve never been "free." If you want to live here, you have to follow certain rules. We’ve never been allowed to do whatever the hell we want. You’re required to wear a seatbelt in the car; otherwise you get ticketed. You also have to wear a helmet in many states if you’re riding a bike — you can’t just say, "It’s my head. If I want to crack it open, I should be allowed to crack it open." You’re not allowed to get high on heroin, cocaine, or crack. You’re not allowed to drunkenly stagger around the neighborhood with an open 40-ounce of Budweiser, or poop in the subway station, though neither of these things would be considered very unusual in New York.

These laws were established to benefit others, not just the individuals who follow them — and sometimes the benefit isn’t health-related but economically related. According to the Washington Post, 36 percent of Americans are excessively overweight, and treatment for overweight-related conditions cost the United States $190 billion a year. If you get your insurance through your employer, obesity is increasing your health insurance by an average of $150 a year in 1998 dollars, according to a report from the Stan Dorn Urban Institute.

So while some people may argue that their health is their own business, those with unhealthy lifestyles — not just excessive eating — are contributing to the healthcare price tag that comes out of our wallets. With about 36 percent of American adults and 17 percent of American children obese, it’s fair to say we’ve got ourselves an expensive crisis on our hands.

Now, if you argue instead that this particular strategy is too intrusive, you may have a point. If the government can limit soda sizes, who’s to say it won’t start telling you how much alcohol you can have at dinner or how big your slice of cheesecake should be when you splurge on dessert at a restaurant? Maybe I want that giant slice of cheesecake for my birthday since I don’t typically indulge in it. I’m not going to order two; that’s absurd. But shouldn’t I be allowed to eat an excessive amount if I want to for this special occasion? Bloomberg’s proposal could be crossing that fine line between protecting people and interfering with their ability to make their own choices.