Nanny Bloomberg's War on Soda

Why is New York's busybody mayor regulating city residents within an inch of their lives?


Last month I applauded New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his graduation message in North Carolina in favor of marriage equality. But, I wondered at the time, why not "extend to food his own comments about [the] error of denying freedom"?

Fat chance. On Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg proposed a sweeping ban on the sale of "large" sweetened beverages in the city.

The proposed ban invited fast and widespread outrage and derision. Sure, people you might expect to oppose the ban (like Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, and yours truly) weighed in. And critics had fun with news of an official proclamation letter issued by Mayor Bloomberg and read displayed on an easel at a downtown celebration of National Donut Day yesterday—an event that featured the formal unveiling of "the largest box of Entenmann's donuts ever created."

But when New York City Democratic mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, writer and healthy-food advocate Bettina Siegel, Jon Stewart, Jake Tapper, Matt Lauer (Matt Lauer!), and The New York Times's editorial page—which labeled the measure "a ban too far"—question the ban, it appears that even those Mayor Bloomberg might have expected to be sweet on his scheme find it more like sweet nothings.

The ban did draw some tepid support. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman tweeted that the proposed ban was the "[b]est news of the week", while MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski sipped a giant drink while throwing her support behind the mayor's plan.

The ban also drew rabid support from writer Drew Magary, whose moronic and reprehensible Gawker rant attacking opponents of the ban ("Please, people, shut the fuck up.") contains this explanation of democracy for the millions of "fatsos" in need of an unintentionally hilarious and misbegotten lesson:

Democracy is not OH MY GOD THESE LAWS WILL MAKE US PUSSIES! Democracy is people working together to sort out just what the rules of society should be. Obviously, this process is labored and often hilariously corrupt, but that's what living in a "free country" is supposed to mean. It doesn't mean that you get to grab a gun and storm City Hall just because you think a soda ban is some kind of sign of the End Times. It's fucking soda. Don't be such a pussy that you can't live without a 42 oz. cup of the shit. If you're the type to flip out just because you can't have that, then who's the real pussy?

So. Dumb. This piece from the new Village Voice writer James King, in which King rips Magary to shreds in brilliant fashion, is the perfect antidote to the Gawker piece.

Like Magary, the proposed ban makes little sense.

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Take the science. The unsweetened juice of an apple—that symbol of New York City—contains at a minimum exactly the same number of grams of sugar per ounce (3.25 g) as Coca-Cola (3.25 g). Choose a different source and apple juice suddenly boasts more sugar per ounce (and more calories) than Coca-Cola.

Look at the economics behind the ban, which chef Daniel Moody argues would actually subsidize heavy soda drinkers at the expense of those who drink less. And that's to say nothing of the fact that in a time of rising unemployment, growth in the food and beverage industry accounted for more than 40 percent of new jobs (according to recent government data) created in April.

So why would Mayor Bloomberg propose such a ban—especially on the eve of his Donut Day proclamation?

If this doublespeak by the Bloomberg administration sounds to you like, well, doublespeak, then let me do nothing to dissuade you of that notion. But if you reside somewhere within the narrow, crayoned sliver of land that sits between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean, you may not know that this sort of haphazard food polic(y)ing is just part of a typical news cycle in the Bloombergosphere.

Whether it's proposing to restrict new tavern licenses, suggesting a ban on happy hours, banning food donations to homeless shelters, attempting to limit restaurants' use of salt, merely making life difficult for food trucks, banning trans fats, et cetera, there appears to be no food consumer, seller, or ingredient that escapes the eagle eyes of the mayor and his hawkish health department, headed by Thomas Farley.

Bloomberg and Farley claim the soda ban is a public health measure designed to stem mounting obesity numbers. And they place the blame for those numbers largely on soda and other sweetened drinks. For example, the Times reports that Farley attributes to "up to half of the increase in city obesity rates over the last 30 years" to "sweetened drinks."

Those are some heady—and heavy—numbers. Farley's evidence? The Times doesn't suggest any, and Farley has since repeated a similar claim without offering any support:

Now, there are many contributing factors to [New York City's obesity rate], but there is none—no single factor that is contributing to it more than the increase in consumption of these sugary drinks. There's something about this product that seems to be uniquely associated with obesity and is also increasingly associated with diabetes and heart disease.

The specifics of the "something" that Farley claims "seems to be uniquely associated with obesity" have so far eluded him. Though that same "something" appears not to have escaped the attention of Farley's own health department, which reports that "New York City neighborhoods that report lower physical activity levels and less fruit and vegetable consumption have higher obesity rates."

But then facts and evidence are not Farley's strong suit. The perverse "curve shifting" practices embraced by Farley—which Forbes writer Trevor Butterworth described earlier this year—require little more than faith in one's ability to regulate.

What else but such faith can explain the mess the New York City health department found itself in earlier this year when it was forced to admit it had doctored stock images of an obese man—Photoshopping out one of the man's legs and swapping in a crutch—as part of its anti-soda campaign.

Was the department apologetic? No, even as a model used in another ad attacked the health department's practices.

"We might stop using actors in our ads if the food industry stops using actors in theirs," said John Kelly, a health department spokesman, after The New York Times exposed the deceit. Neener neener.

With that level of discourse, it's no surprise the amputee ad is still featured prominently at the health department website.

If bald lies seem too much, there's always policy based on honest-to-goodness, take-a-stab guesswork.

Consider, for example, the process by which Bloomberg and Farley settled on 16 ounces as an appropriate maximum beverage size:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commissioner Farley, how did you decide on 16 ounces? Why not 12 ounces or eight ounces, which might be too much sugar for a smaller person? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: Well, we certainly think that 16 ounces is ample.

Farley then went on to talk like he and Mayor Bloomberg are actively working behind each of the city's beverage counters, claiming "we are going to serve them a portion size that gives them a guide as to what is the maximum appropriate size."

Years and dozens of hyperlinks show that New Yorkers and Americans should not take either Farley or Mayor Bloomberg at their word when it comes to regulating food. In Mayor Bloomberg's own words, we should not tolerate the error of denying freedom.

Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.