Go Ahead, Ban That Big Gulp

I’m obviously a little bit a month behind the news on this one, but, if you haven’t heard, the New York City Board of Health approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces (that’s two cups, a pint; roughly 500 mL for non-Americans.) The ban falls in line with other moves that Bloomberg has initiated, including requiring restaurants to post calorie information on menus.

{I won’t lie: even though I intentionally do not count calories, there have been times in the JFK airport when I’ve passed on a seemingly innocent-looking muffin after noting that it contained about 1/3 of an average adult woman’s daily calorie requirement!}

This ban actually makes me pretty happy, and here’s why:

1. As the New York Times points out (accurately, I think), such moves in New York City often catch on around the country, which means that Bloomberg’s public health initiatives reach farther than just the five boroughs.

2. Human beings are really bad at judging appropriate portion sizes, and at stopping when we’ve had enough. We just aren’t wired like that. Don’t believe me? Read this book. It’s not really fair for the industry to frame this as a question of “personal choice” or “personal responsibility” when stopping halfway through a 32 oz Big Gulp is nearly a biological impossibility.

3. Soda companies capitalize on the fact that we like to get a deal. So it will cost 15 cents more to get a 48 oz soda than to get a 16 ounce more. It’s hard for us not to spring for the “super size” deal. We do, and (see #2) we end up drinking it all.

4. I happen to think that the answer to the “obesity epidemic” doesn’t necessarily lie in “personal responsibility.” (See this post on Let’s Move; yes, my criticism is bi-partisan.) The fact is, most of us are fed by big corporations. Big corporations shape the choices that are possible. The responsibility lies in large part with them. As long as there is no public policy to reign in their profit-making methods, they will exploit  #2 and #3.

The Times article noted that 60% of New Yorkers opposed the ban; it didn’t say who had conducted the research or how the question had been framed. Even so, given the gravity of diet- (especially sugar!) related disease in this country, and given the above points, I don’t think banning oversize sodas–let’s be honest, 16 oz/500mL is still a LOT of soda!–is all that different from banning the sale of tobacco to minors, or banning the use of additives known to cause harm.

{See also Mark Bittman’s excellent Opinionator column on the subject in the New York Times}

7 thoughts on “Go Ahead, Ban That Big Gulp

  1. Did you notice that the ban does not include coffee drinks like mochas and frappuccinos and flavored lattes? A report I heard on NPR said that drinks with dairy are exempt. One of those extra large fraps can carry more sugar and more calories than a big gulp ever will. I wonder if they will refine the ban to include these types of drinks at some point. Also, those coffee places carry those extra large muffins you mention. People think those are viable breakfast options (“It says bran right on it!”). Bloomberg might want to look at those as well. Where he would draw the line and stop banning is an interesting question for public policy decision-making.

    1. Tim, you are correct that the ban is a little (okay, a lot) arbitrary. But even if it’s largely symbolic, I think it’s a good message to Big Food: “the health of citizens is important to us. In NYC, at least, you can’t super-size with impunity!”

      1. Symbolism can be very effective, Rachel. Consider the requirement to include the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packages a few decades ago; that can be characterized as purely a symbolic gesture, since it didn’t apply to cigars or pipe tobacco if I remember right. Now we ban smoking entirely in restaurants and other public places in California based on public health policy.

  2. Since I believe high fructose corn syrup is devastating to the body, and I wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial pole, I don’t care that our mayor banned large amounts of soda. I don’t think he should have that right, but then again he’s the man who changed the law so he could have a third term as mayor, after term limits had been established. However, if he tries to mess with my coffee…….well..

    1. True enough! Bloomberg does bend the rules for himself. In this case I think of him like Gandalf telling the Balrog, “you. shall. not. PAAAASSS!” Except the Balrog is Coca-cola, and Bloomberg is Gandalf. He’s saying that soda companies should not get to profit SO much from harming people’s health SO badly. It’s symbolic, but it’s there.

  3. Posting caloric values and nutritional info is a good idea. It informs the people allowing them to make an educated decision for themselves. Having the government tell you what you can and cannot eat/drink, even if it is for the better, takes the choice away from the people. That’s scary and it’s happening on too many levels. A public policy approach that creates incentives to live a healthier lifestyle and focuses on nutritional education leaves the decision making to the individual and addresses the roots of obesity instead of just the means.

  4. For me, my objection to such a thing lies not with the actual health issue, but whether the role of government is to regulate such things. I say it isn’t. On the nutritional side, however, it is not a bad thing for the larger sizes to be unavailable. I can remember a guy I dated would guzzle them at the movies, and we’d share a large popcorn, and I could not understand how he didn’t have diabetes. (I know it doesn’t work exactly like that.) It makes me feel pretty sick to drink that much soda.

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