The Real Problem With Bloomberg’s Soda Ban

by Bill Brenner on March 12, 2013

A state judge has struck down New York City’s large-soda ban, which was set to take effect today. Judge Milton Tingling of the New York Supreme Court called Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s public health measure “arbitrary and capricious.” I agree, though not necessarily for the same reasons.

Here’s what I jotted down last year, when Bloomberg first announced the ban. It’s my perspective as a recovering binge eater…

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has generated lots of noise with his ban on uber-sized sodas. Supporters say the fight against American obesity needs to start somewhere. Opponents accuse him of leading a nanny state. Both sides are barking up the wrong tree.

Mood music:

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I look at this as an addict. My most destructive addiction involved binge eating on junk rich in flour and sugar. I had to eliminate both ingredients from my diet to regain control over my mental and physical health. If that battle has taught me anything, it’s that government can’t do a damn thing to save you from yourself.

Those who have no problem with a soda ban raise some interesting points, including Gawker’s Drew Magary, who wrote that people should “quit complaining” about the ban. He writes:

If you think that a ban on large sodas is somehow an affront to America freedom, I have news for you: You don’t live in a free country. You never have and you never will. That’s an illusion. You are not free to murder people in America. You are not free to stand in the middle of an intersection and block traffic like an asshole. You do not have the absolute freedom to do anything you want in America, and that’s a good thing, because living somewhere with absolute freedom means you live in fucking Deadwood.

New York city residents were already fully aware that Bloomberg was prone to implementing drastic public health measures, like the 2003 ban on smoking in bars. And yet, they re-elected him. In other words, New Yorkers were FREE to vote for the man who installed laws that they apparently considered both sane and reasonable. That’s how democracy works.

He’s right about the freedom part. People keep re-electing Bloomberg knowing full well that he has a track record on this stuff. And no, we’re not free to murder, steal and destroy without consequences. But I’m with those who say the laws we live by should not extend to what we do with our own bodies. The government has no business telling us what we can eat and drink.

But that’s beside the bigger point here: Regulating addictive substances does little to keep addicts from using. That’s true of heroin and coke users. It’s all the more true with alcohol and tobacco. If controlling the use of those things is so difficult, then controlling the use of perfectly legal and freely available junk food is fruitless.

We’ve been down this road before. I’m reminded of a book called The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler, MD, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Kessler makes a compelling argument: Foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter the brain’s chemistry in ways that compel people to overeat. “Much of the scientific research around overeating has been physiology — what’s going on in our body,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying in “David Kessler: Fat, Salt and Sugar Alter Brain Chemistry, Make Us Eat Junk Food.”

For the true addict, regulation is a joke, especially if the drug is junk food. Knowing what’s in junk food won’t keep the addict away. I always read the labels after binging on the item in the package. And the labels have done nothing to curb the child obesity pandemic.

That’s the real problem with Bloomberg’s soda ban.

I liken it to recent efforts to punish McDonald’s for contributing to child obesity. As one McDonald’s restaurant put on its outdoor sign recently:

Saying your kids are fat because of us is like saying it’s Hooter’s fault your husband likes big tits.

McDonald’s is where I binged again and again when my compulsive overeating was at its zenith. But I’ve never blamed the fast-food chain. Buying its food — my heroin — was my choice and responsibility.

When you have young children, you have far more control over what they put in their bodies. If you’re an overeater yourself and you’re always stressed and on the run, you probably let your child eat this stuff all the time. If your child is fat as a result, that’s your fault, not McDonald’s.

We all have choices. When we make the bad calls, we have to own it.

If the bad choice is too many large sodas, Bloomberg can’t help us by banning the beverage, no matter how pure his intentions are.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott June 4, 2012 at 10:30 am

I’ve heard a lot of noise about this, even living north of the border. It’s easy to pick on soda, but really, shouldn’t this apply to all portion sizes? Whenever I visit the US, I’m completely astounded at the amount of food I get for a relatively inexpensive price. To be clear, I completely agree with Bill that this soda ban does nothing to address anyone that is addicted to eating.

Now I’ll really twist things (well, maybe not): portion size, especially in the fast food space, is a function of free market economics. Rather than have have smaller sizes (which inherently drives costs up, think cups and calculus for ideal sizing, where smaller cups eat more profits), all the sizes get shifted upward, to provide more “value”and ultimately the price you can charge. When the cup you put a beverage in is a large part of that cost, you’re going to do what you can to minimize the cost.

I don’t think that this law can help anyone that wants to binge on soda, because the simple solution is to just buy two cups.

I’m one of those “clean your plate” types, mainly because of the way I was raised, and while I’d never order a huge soda, if one was in a combo, or the size small was 16oz, chances are that I’ll finish it. I honestly think that a law like this might help someone like me imbibe a few less calories, but it’s never going to help cure obesity.

I say “Let them have their huge sodas!”, but how about if you want to sell anything over 16oz, you also have to sell an 8oz and a 12oz too. How about a little honesty in sizing. If 16oz is a “large”, doesn’t that help set a baseline of realistic expectations?

Stop Being Sweet June 4, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Addicts are always special cases. Reducing or regulating the availability of said substances is a gesture toward possibly keeping the casual user from becoming addicted. Saying it won’t work is like saying speed limits don’t keep people from speeding.

io_saturnalia June 4, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Is Drew Magary truly comparing drinking a Big Gulp to murder? Such a lack of perspective or proportionality must be like being high all the time.

SS January 28, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Not to be judgemental but this doesn’t make entire sense to me. I am in grade six, and I mean, it is the people’s job to eat healthy and the economies job to provide safe healthy food for those without tons of money. The main reason (or one of them) that people, not only Americans, are eating too much is because it costs too much to buy healthy food! Most of north America’s population is tight on money, and cannot afford the food the government recommends. Yes, it is the citizens responsibility to eat healthy, but also the governments job to help provide that resource. Anyhow.

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