The Big Apple Takes on the Big Gulp

 Posted by on August 15, 2012
Aug 152012

(Image courtesy of onelessvowl via flickr)

Obesity is a huge problem for America, costing the nation $73.1 billion a year in lost productivity, not to mention health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure that cause much suffering.  Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York—a city where 34% of the adult population is overweight and 22% is obese— has made numerous small changes to try to curb these rates. He has banned trans-fats, has required calorie counts in restaurants, and now he’s proposing a ban on selling sweetened drinks in sizes greater than 16 ounces.

The ban, if enacted by NYC’s board of health in September, would limit all sweetened drinks: soda, lemonade, Slurpies, bubble tea, even New York classics like the Egg Cream would each be capped at 16 ounces. No more Big, or Super Big Gulps as large as 64 ounces.

Bloomberg has received much criticism for putting these arbitrary limits on one specific set of products while ignoring other products (for example, see Jon Stewart’s critique below), but technically he is not limiting how much soda people may drink.  Instead his ban sets the size of one soda to 16 ounces, and just as human behavior typically leads us to consume more when we are served larger amounts, most NYC residents will consume less when served smaller portions.

The average size of a soda has increased enormously since the 1950s, when two full servings fit inside today’s 12 ounce can.  Now the smallest soda you can buy in most restaurants is a 20 ounce cup – and the default “medium” size is 32oz—five whole glasses back in the 50s. High sugar drinks are strongly correlated with obesity and as the serving size has increased, so too have obesity rates.

George Hacker, senior policy advisor at The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) explained that, “Up to half of the extra calories people are eating today compared to the 1970’s are from soda.”  Additionally, the soda industry has increased its niche in the market from its historical role as a treat once or twice a week to a daily beverage. The soda industry also aggressively targets children and poor communities with its advertisements. Coca-Cola alone spending 2.6 billion dollars a year in advertising worldwide as of 2006, another reason, as Mr. Hacker explained, to focus efforts on anti-soda legislation.

Others in the health policy arena are taking a different approach to limiting soda in their efforts to combat obesity.  The Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael A. Nutter proposed a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks in 2010, the proceeds of which, would have funded a campaign against obesity in Philadelphia.  In his speech at the first Sugary Drinks Summit in Washington DC on June 7th and 8th Nutter explained the motivation behind soda limiting policies:

Governments want to create and promote policies that encourage citizens to make conscious and well-informed decisions about the health impact of what they are buying for themselves, their families and children.”

Nutter’s first attempt at a soda tax in 2010 failed, as did the second attempt in 2011, due to strong and pervasive opposition from the beverage industry.

In Richmond, California residents will be asked to vote on a one-cent-per-ounce tax on soda bottles this coming November.  The city has poverty rates twice that of the national average and it is estimated that 52% of elementary school children are overweight or obese.

A tax has many benefits over an outright ban.  It allows soda lovers to continue indulging, but now they must pay a little extra, which, as smoking taxes suggest, should discourage the behavior.  Furthermore, the externality of having a nation of obese people is partially rectified.  A tax can also create revenue to fund a larger campaign against the growing obesity problem, as was Mayor Nutter’s intention. George Hacker of CSPI mentioned that soda is an important first step, but that “only through changing the whole environment,” can obesity be reduced.

Mayors Bloomberg and Nutter are seeking to shift behavior in intelligent, sustainable directions.  New policies are being adopted to edit out the unhealthy choices that the consumer culture often makes so attractive.  Bloomberg’s ban on super-sizes is a step towards reducing one of society’s most harmful forms of overconsumption, and capping sizes is one strategy open to him (a New York State law prevents him from creating a soda tax).

Despite the positive goals of this policy, many simply despise when governments set limitations or try to alter individuals’ choices. Ironically there have been many corporate efforts to shift culture and behavior, which alter choice in essentially the same ways.  Demand for new products is stoked through consumer research and advertisements and over time these products become essentials for the American life.  Plastic bags, disposable plates and utensils, and bottled water are each examples of widely used products, which Americans did perfectly fine without fifty years ago.  As they have been normalized into American culture we now spend more on products and also must deal with the plastic waste of utensils, bags and bottles while corporations profit from the inefficiencies they have established as normal practices.

Efforts like Bloomberg’s ban are a step towards transforming culture in a healthier direction.  Despite facing strong opposition from big soda and other companies catering to an obese nation, the anti-obesity movement is gaining momentum.  CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson speaks to this progress, “Not only are people drinking less soda, but there is more support for public policies that nudge people in the right direction, and that make the healthy choice the default choice.”

Michele Simon, author of the website, reveals big soda’s current dilemma: “The public health crisis [the soda industry’s] products have helped create means that industry cannot keep enjoying the same unfettered regulatory environment.” Yet, that doesn’t mean the industry has given up the fight. In fact, it is spending millions to sway consumers into blocking NYC’s cap on soda sizes— and using the very language of choice to make their case.  Radio ads and street petitioners urge New Yorkers to join the coalition of New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a recently mobilized grassroots group against the ban.  Recognizing that this is a precedent they don’t want set, the beverage industry is “prepared to utilize whatever resources are necessary,” to stop the ban from passing.  Ultimately, the decision comes down to a group of health professionals on the New York City Health Board, and until they make their decision in September the soda industry will likely intensify their efforts.

I hope she's not planning to drink the entire half liter at once (Image courtesy of Range of Light via flickr)

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