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05/31/2012

Bloomberg and the Big Bad Soda Ban

Every few years in states like New York and California some state official has “had it up to here” with the obesity epidemic. They vow to do something major about it. That something is often a tax on consumer goods that, in their view, contribute to obesity. Video games, movie tickets, sugary drinks and fatty foods are all frequent targets of these state and local officials who argue that taxes on these goods will reduce consumption. Because such initiatives rarely are approved, there is little data to suggest one way or the other whether “sin taxes” or “fat taxes” actually work. We await evidence from Denmark’s butter levy.

So Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken things one step further by suggesting a ban on “the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts.”  Unlike Denmark’s move to simply increase the cost of fatty goods, NYC is moving to making it impossible to even get the suspect food stuffs.  A ban? On soda at the movie theater? This is downright un-American! You can almost hear the cries in the street now: “Give me a Big Gulp or give me death!”

Of course, the real devil of this plan (and any other like it) is in the details. Large beverages are defined by any thing over 16 ounces; in other words, two whole cups of sugar infused liquid is still okay. Energy drinks and pre-sweetened drinks of the larger size would be banned but not these sugar laden smaller versions. 8 ounces of RockStar energy drink, for example, has 31 g of sugar. A 12 ounce Coke has 39 g. Water, of course, and diet soda have none.  Also fruit juice (often pumped with as much sugar as soda) and milkshakes are okay. Go figure.

This policy is arbitrary and while well intentioned will do little to curb obesity in NYC, I predict. Most policies like this have been resoundingly criticized for their arbitrariness, the lack of evidence to support these bans or taxes on consumer goods, and for the lack of consideration to personal freedom and ethics.

The Bloomberg plan, while it is likely to be passed by the NYC Board of Health due to the nature of NYC government, is certain to face the same criticisms. Frankly, this policy would have benefited from being MORE universal–banning the sugary drinks all together rather than just in absurdly large sizes–MORE evidentiary–by showing us the studies that suggest that sugary drinks consumed in small quantities don’t cause obesity or at least help curb it–or MORE bold–by, for example, requiring ID in order to purchase energy drinks (thus preventing children from drinking them). There are certainly more balanced policy options out there (such as “sin taxes”) that can reduce consumption and/or generate revenues to fight public health problems. It is unfortunate that Mayor Bloomberg chose instead to back the “big bad soda ban”.

Summer Johnson McGee, PhD

  • http://www.exponentialthought.com/ Sean Valinoti

    I am not a big fan of this ban, however I would suggest there is at least something a little more honest in a ban then a “sin tax” that is just aimed at increasing revenue.

  • David Resnik

    Couldn’t agree more.  I wrote an article about these type of public health policy efforts published in AJOB a few years ago:  
    Resnik
    DB.  Trans fat bans and human
    freedom.  American Journal of Bioethics 2010; 10, 3: 27-32.  While I am generally in favor of government efforts to promote public health, there are better (more effective, less restrictive) ways of getting at the problem.