Yesterday a New York State Supreme Court judge heard arguments on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on the sale of large servings of soda. His plan would limit the size of sugary drinks that can be sold to no more than 16 ounces. He says the ban is necessary to fight obesity. The beverage industry – supported by the Hispanic Federation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – says the ban on big drinks is unfair and will harm minority businesses.
Despite his good intentions, Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban is misguided. It simultaneously goes too far and not far enough. Not only does the plan unfairly single out one segment of one industry, it will disproportionately impact small businesses, such as bodegas.
Obesity is a legitimate public health concern, especially among Hispanics. But Bloomberg’s proposal amounts to overreach into the realm of consumer choice. As the Hispanic Federation and NAACP point out, any limits on the sale of sodas should have come from elected members of the City Council. Instead the ban was approved by the Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health, which amounts to an end-run around the democratic process. Will limits on candy and donuts be imposed next?
The problem with the soda ban is that it is not really a ban. It would apply to restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and independently owned stores. Supermarkets, chains stores, and convenience stores are exempt. If New Yorkers want to buy a Big Gulp at 7-11 (which is aggressively expanding in New York), they are free to do so. The ban also contains an exemption for “milk-based” drinks. That means New Yorkers can still order a large Vanilla Bean Coolatta (850 calories) at Dunkin’ Donuts, or a Venti Ice White Chocolate Mocha (640 calories) at Starbucks. Bloomberg’s “ban” will do nothing to take these super-sized sugary beverages off the market.
What Bloomberg’s ban will do is affect neighborhood and Mom-n-Pop stores, who stand to lose customers and revenue if the ban goes into effect. Why should small and minority-owned businesses be selectively subjected to city regulations? The soda ban puts the biggest burden on those businesses who can least afford it.
“New Yorkers do not want to be told what to drink,” attorney James Brant argued in court. He’s right. A 2012 poll by the New York Times found 60 percent of New Yorkers opposed to the ban, while only 36 percent favored it.
To his credit, Bloomberg has lobbied for sensible health policies in the past. He successfully banned trans fats in New York City restaurants, and made restaurants post calorie counts on their menus. Yet consider how his ban on smoking differs from his proposed soda ban. Bloomberg banned smoking in restaurants, bars, beaches, and public spaces, thus sharply curtailing citizens’ ability to smoke. His soda ban would not be nearly so effective, because there are too many ways around it. Most New Yorkers will still be able to drink what they want to drink, in whatever quantities they choose – except people in poor neighborhoods, where options are frequently more limited.
The fate of Bloomberg’s plan will likely have national implications, as New York City often leads the country in public policy. Since Bloomberg introduced his soda ban, the New York Times notes, “other states and cities have pursued similar measures.” Hawaii and Nebraska have recently proposed higher taxes on sugary drinks.
It is important that cities address obesity among Latinos and African-Americans. However, it would be better to promote healthy choices, rather than attempt to outlaw unhealthy ones. Instead of cutting gym classes in the city schools, as Bloomberg’s administration has done, the city would do well to find funds and resources for health and physical education.
Whether Bloomberg likes it or not, people have the right to their own choices. What he sees as a small step in the fight against obesity is really a big misstep that will do little to combat the problem. His soda ban deserves to fizzle out.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.