You’ve probably already heard that yesterday afternoon, just hours before New York City’s ban on the sale of extra large soft drinks was to go into effect, a New York State Supreme Court Judge struck it down as no less than “arbitrary and capricious”.
Reminder: earlier this year, New York’s City council, led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, decided to take a bold step to curb obesity. Establishments regulated by the city, such as such as restaurants, movie theaters, delis, food trucks, and street carts, would no longer be permitted to sell single serve sugary soft drinks greater than 16 fluid ounces.
The “NYC Soda Ban” is very controversial and has raised many interesting points / counterpoints. Here are the five main arguments cleverly crafted by the beverage industry:
1. Self control. People can control their buying habits. The government has no business telling us what to do. It can’t tell people what to eat or not to eat.
Counterpoint: If people could really control themselves, we wouldn’t be facing an obesity crisis of epic proportions today. Corporations are manipulating consumers through clever advertising, and behavioral economics (the super size soda is cheaper per fluid ounce) to reduce our self control to that of a 3 year old.
2. Education, not Legislation. The government should educate the public then let people make their own decisions!
Counterpoint: The government does not have the billions that junk food companies do to educate people on healthy eating habits. When was the last time you saw a commercial suggesting you eat an apple or drink tap water? Our kids are getting their education from junk food companies, and that’s why education does not work on its own.
3. Nanny State. This is unconstitutional and un-American. The soda size restriction is an infringement of personal liberties.
Counterpoint: So is a seatbelt law. So is banning raw milk. So is paying income tax. So is going through airport security. Are they all unconstitutional too? Pulling the “communism” card when discussing the proposed ban is not about freedom at all, it’s about money. If our freedom is begin limited, it’s by corporations that are manipulating and nudging us to take the least healthy choices.
4. Dumb Law. The restriction is limited to theaters and restaurants but not to supermarkets or pharmacies. It does not cover diet colas or fruit juices that have just as much sugar.
Counterpoint: Mayor Bloomberg worked within the constraints of his position. Supermarkets are under state, not municipal, jurisdiction. Targeting just sugary soda was a simple decision. Unlike juice, that has some nutritional benefits, soda has zero added value for the price of 14 teaspoons of sugar per 16 oz (the proposed limit).
5. More important things to do. Doesn’t the government have more pressing matters to address right now, like the economy?
Counterpoint: actually, the economy’s biggest threat is our growing healthcare costs, now at 20% of the GDP and expected to continue rising. And why are we spending so much on healthcare? Hint: Food is the single largest contributor to disease in the US today. We would argue that the biggest threat to the US today is our self inflicted health crisis. Until we realize the severity of the problem and take some serious steps to solve it, we are in trouble.
Here’s what we think: Ultimately the problem lies in our political system. Congress and the President are not fully beholden to “we the people”, but rather to donations from large corporations. Lobbies rule America, not elected officials. The obesity epidemic is a clear, if unintended side effect of misaligned loyalties. It’s not by chance that the toughest measure against a junk food company was taken by a politician who is a self made billionaire, beholden to nobody but the public he serves.
And yet, within the constraints of our 2013 politics, what can be done to help get America back on track?
One option is to tax sales of sugary drinks. In a way, the beverage industry’s win against Bloomberg yesterday may lead to its longer term loss, should legislators take a more serious look at the deleterious effects of sugary soft drinks on our health and our economy. And of course overcome the extremely intense pressure of the beverage industry.
A soda tax is just one example of using behavioral economics to turn the healthy choices into the default choice for consumers. Making junk food more expensive means the healthy food becomes more attractive financially. Another example is requiring the price per fluid ounce to be the same no matter what size drink is sold. Another option: requiring clean, easy to access public water fountains that can be used to fill personal water bottles at any location that sells sugary drinks.
What would you do?