The Benefit of Bloomberg's Big Beverage Ban

The mayor's soda scheme won't make anyone thinner, but it sets a paternalistic precedent.


Everyone expected that New York City's Board of Health, all 11 members of which were appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would rubber-stamp his proposed 16-ounce cap on servings of sugar-sweetened soft drinks. But at a meeting last week, several board members zeroed in on the most obvious problem with Bloomberg's plan to treat adults like children: It does not go far enough.

Given Bloomberg's avowed goal of reducing New Yorkers' waistlines by reducing their calorie intake, his soda scheme is indeed absurdly inadequate, as he inadvertently emphasizes every time he minimizes the extent to which it will restrict consumer freedom. Once we accept the premise that our weight is the government's business, we open the door to meddling far more intrusive and oppressive than Bloomberg's pint-sized pop prescription, which is bound to fail as an anti-obesity measure but could still succeed as a paternalistic precedent.

Although the Board of Health unanimously agreed to hold a hearing on the soft drink regulations next month, followed by a final vote in September, members' comments highlighted the timidity of the mayor's supposedly courageous plan. Joel Forman questioned the exception for milk-based beverages such as coffee drinks and chocolate shakes, which "have monstrous amounts of calories"—more per ounce than soda, in fact, which is also true of the fruit juices that would be exempt from Bloomberg's serving ceiling.

Another board member, Michael Phillips, noted that the carve-out for drinks sold by convenience stores, supermarkets, and vending machines (which are not regulated by the city's health department), means 7-Eleven's Big Gulp—the very epitome of the effervescent excess decried by Bloomberg—will remain available. There also was murmuring about the continued legality of free refills, which will allow people to drink as much soda as they want, provided they do it 16 ounces at a time.

And why focus exclusively on beverages, when man does not get fat by soda alone? If the city is going to ban extra-large drinks in movie theaters, what about extra-large popcorn? "The popcorn isn't a whole lot better from a nutritional point of view than the soda is," board member Bruce Vladeck observed, "and may have even more calories." Phillips likewise questioned the mayor's liquidity preference. "We're really looking at restricting portion size," he said, "so the argument could be…what about the size of a hamburger or the jumbo fries, and all that kind of stuff?"

Bloomberg himself undermines the case for his rule by insisting that it will not constrain people's choices in any meaningful way. "It's a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32-ounce [drink]," he conceded when he unveiled the plan last month, but "I don't think you can make the case that we're taking things away."

If so, what's the point? The plan cannot possibly work unless the burdens it imposes lead people to consume less soda than they otherwise would. Even then, there is no assurance that they won't make up the difference in unregulated areas of their diets.

So why would anyone, even a fervent fat fighter, support Bloomberg's big beverage ban?  The endorsements touted by the city range from the highly improbable ("curtailing the sale of supersize sugary drinks can have a huge impact on the health of our children") to the barely coherent ("Sugar is the tobacco of this decade!…Energy Up! Wooooo!"). But the most common theme is that interfering with people's drink orders, even if it has no measurable impact on its own, represents "a step in the right direction."

Which direction is that, exactly? "They are establishing the role of government in fighting obesity," explains Yale obesity expert Kelly Brownell, adding that "we'll have to do many such things in order to reverse the epidemic." If that prospect fills you with dread rather than hope, now is the time to speak up, before healthier-than-thou busybodies like Bloomberg get serious.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.