NYC Soda Ban Struck Down. Paves Way for Eventual Soda Tax

ban the soda banYou’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?

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  • Kathy

    In Canada, we have had tax on junk food and restaurant meals for many years. Our obesity rate is not quite as bad as the US, but I notice more and more people getting bigger and bigger. I believe taxing junk food is a good idea, but I don’t think it will stop people from buying it. I think it is an addiction and they will buy it no matter what the price.

  • MrBillWest

    If you believe that we can’t control ourselves and buy junk food because of advertising, then making the junk food more expensive will not change the behavior. Well, if you added a 400% tax maybe, but that would only lead to revolt.

    A tax will hit low income families hardest. Then what will they cut out, a whole meal? Couldn’t that just push more people into government care? I don’t think those are desirable.

    Besides, healthy food is CHEAPER than junk food. Ignore all the processed, prepared, organics, and “value added” health food that is way over priced. Stick to the simple stuff. Bananas, apple, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots are all less than $1 per pound. You can make chicken breasts, black beans and brown rice (instant though) for 4 people for under $15, with left overs. A pot of spaghetti and whole wheat noodles with a side of frozen veggies for under $8. Again with plenty of leftovers. Both of these can be put together is less time 20 minute.

    People who say they can afford to eat healthy and/or don’t have the time, just don’t know HOW. A tax can’t teach teach you how to cook.

    • InfiniteOnion

      1lb of apple = ~240 kcal @ ~ $3.50 per 5# bag

      1lb of Big Mac = ~1152 kcal @ ~ $3-5 per order
      (info, except price, from
      Because real numbers only improve a discussion.

    • Brian Klein

      We used to spend nearly half of our available income on food. Now we spend around 8%. I think that says something about the value we place on food quality.

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  • Gerome

    My concern with this attempt by Bloomberg is mostly centered around the lack of any evidence that restricting drink size will actually change behavior. While I am in favor of the spirit and goals, who is to say that if New Yorkers get fatter or remain the same this does not work, or conversely if they get thinner, that this is the cause? We all talk about establishing causation. I don’t think we could in this case.

    The concepts of self-control and being educated also do not occur in a vacuum. They are connected with other factors, among them is indeed price. I have commented here before that when I was a kid, soda was cheaper than milk, and as such, it was a rare treat. Now a big ol’ Coke 2-liter is less than milk. Let’s blame cheap sweeteners as a major contributor to “soda abuse” and the enormous beverage sizes served up at many fast food restaurants.

    While I do not like added taxes generally, I think a tax on added sugar would be just fine. To tag along on your price-per ounce concept — a price per teaspoon of added sugar. High taxes on cigarettes have had an effect of smoking. I think a big old tax on sugar would work. It’s still tricky to enforce across the board. Some juices would get off easy. Coffee — with cream and sugar? Damn, I saw that Dunkin’ was not going to be allowed to add sugar to coffees over 16 ounces. It will not be perfect, but if a 24 ounce Coke cost $2.50 and a Dasani water was a $1.50, and a Diet Coke was a $1.00 — I think there would be behavior change. (Oh, and that brings me back to the top — would people drink less sugar?)

  • Brian Klein

    I think allowing the government to tax sugar is not the right way to do it. I am not personally opposed to it per se, as I think sugar (read: processed carbs) is the main evil behind the obesity epidemic, but where does it stop. Next up will be a tax on saturated fat, even though there is no conclusive evidence that it actually is causing heart disease. To be honest, I am against taxes on cigarettes, too. I don’t think it really stops people from doing what they are going to do, even if it does make them think about it.

    The government could start by giving us better education on diet and nutrition. Right now, the MyPlate is not very good at it, as is only beholden to the various food industries that it supports. But government will never do this because of the lobbies you talk about. There is too much at stake for the food producing companies. And when we are subsidizing the crops like we are, it unfairly prices processed foods lower than real foods. If we want the government to tax sugar, lets remove the subsidy on corn. Essentially, corn is the sugar we are talking about here. (HFCS) That would raise the prices on anything that contains corn, and we might actually start naturally leading healthier lives.


    As someone advocating for healthier food in the school setting, I’ve found that it’s very difficult to make change without firm policies in place. Even if you ask parents to bring healthy food to classroom parties, they still bring junk. I’m all for “unconstitutional” nanny state if it means a longer, healthier life for my kids!

  • Loretta E

    Dont let them tell you what size drink to buy but you will drink crap that has gmo in it. OXYMORON!!!!

  • Alex

    Politicians have this idea that they’re our parents, when they’re really supposed to be our servants. Government’s role is to do what we want them to, not tell us what’s best for us.