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}