Far fewer protestors than expected actually showed up to the Million Big Gulp March, a rally against the proposed ban against large sized soft drinks in New York City on Monday. Although the media and the beverage industry have publicly debated the issue, it seems that New Yorkers don’t seem to care too much about losing their super-sized sugary drinks. “We were expecting 1,000 people and at our highest maybe we had 50 here,” said Max Dickstein, co-organizer of the rally sponsored by NYC Liberty and several city council members.
After successful campaigns against smoking and trans-fats, Mayor Bloomberg’s newest health initiative is fighting obesity by proposing a ban against large sized soft drinks. The ban would forbid the sale of high-calorie soft drinks in sizes over 16 ounces in licensed food-service establishments, with a $200 fine for each sale in violation of the proposed law.
Casual onlookers stopped at City Hall Park to gawk at the small gathering of protestors holding signs, such as “Hands off my bladder” and “I don’t drink soda, I believe in freedom.” A handful of people brought their own Big Gulps as a sign of protest, even though the namesake of the event will likely not be affected by the ban. One man even brought along his three young children, each nursing their own personal Big Gulp in a statement-making move, and New York City councilman and congressional candidate Dan Halloran (R-Queens) showed up to the event flanked by two girls dressed as giant Big Gulps.
The primary arguments made against the ban were freedom of choice and the extent of government intervention. “It’s not Mayor Bloomberg’s job to tell us what we can each and drink,” said Andrea Hebert, sales director at Avanti Furs. “It’s not the government’s job to fight against obesity. Period. It’s up to the individual in a free society, which America is supposed to be.” Initially angered by the smoking ban, Brooklyn student Uri Krakauer commented. “That scares me that government can decide what is good or bad in our society and start taking things away. I just felt that I had to take a stand against that," he said.
Many protestors claimed they didn’t even drink soda, and the common refrain of the event quickly became, “It’s not about soda, it’s about…” Between individual rights, precedence, personal responsibility, or freedom of choice, it seemed the rally was about everything except soda. Audrey Silk of Clash, a smoker’s rights advocacy group, was invited to speak, conceivably to parallel the smoking ban with the new soda ban, and perhaps to garner support for the cause by bringing up old wounds. But Bloomberg isn’t arguing with the citizen’s right to freedom of choice. “If you want to kill yourself, I guess you have a right to do it,” the Mayor said Monday in response to the protest.
One speaker summed up the idea pretty nicely, “Even without the ban, you still have the right to choose not to drink soda if that’s what you want to do. Just don’t take away everybody else’s choice. That’s what America is about. It’s about choice. Its about freedom.” In support of individual responsibility, event organizer Zach Huff proclaimed, “Liberties and health are not mutually exclusive.”
The extent of the debate has even been turned into a joke by some — a group asking passersby to sign their petition against the ban donned shirts that read, “I picked out my beverage all by myself.” Even in the subway on the way to the event, an advertisement for Manhattan Mini Storage mocked the ban, saying “We doubt NYC’s biggest problem is large sodas.” After countless arguments were made proclaiming freedom of choice, the arguments became more outlandish. In an extreme example, one speaker proclaimed, “You do not have the right to oppress us. I’ll drink Draino out of a gas can if I want.”
To Bloomberg, the issue of sugar and obesity is no laughing matter, but many citizens, especially those with a prior dislike for the Mayor, feel he should be focusing his attention elsewhere. “He [Mayor Bloomberg] should be concentrating on lowering our taxes and our infrastructure, not on our kitchens. That’s his job,” said Hebert, one of the more enthusiastic protestors at the rally. “If we want to fix the health problems in this City, let’s start with gym classes and after-school programs, parks and recreation space, and educating people about health issues,” Halloran said.
“I think a lot of people here are upset with Bloomberg and found another excuse to be mad at Bloomberg,” said Dickstein, who is sure the law will pass despite the opposition.
On July 24, the Board of Health will hold a public hearing regarding the ban and will then decide whether or not it will take effect. Until then, the few passionate protestors will continue to publicly speak their minds about the soda ban — or about freedom, Bloomberg, or Draino.