Nanny State

NYC Board of Health Ponders Bloomberg's Big Beverage Ban

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Today the New York City Board of Health is holding a public hearing on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal for a 16-ounce cap on servings of sugar-sweetened beverages sold by restaurants, movie theaters, food carts, and concession stands. In a conveniently timed letter to The New England Journal of Medicine, three public health researchers at NYU estimate that the restriction could reduce consumption per meal in fast food restaurants by up to 63 calories. That's assuming everyone drinks a single 16-ounce serving, rather than buying a second drink or taking advantage of free refills at self-serve beverage stations. The smaller the share of customers who stop at 16 ounces, of course, the smaller the reduction in calories; if 70 percent disregard Bloomberg's beverage boundary, the researchers calculate, the decrease will no longer be statistically significant, and at 80 percent it becomes a statistically significant increase.

Deeming that kind of revolt improbable, the authors conclude that "the policy appears to be associated with a decrease in calories from sugar-sweetened beverages purchased at fast-food restaurants." Even if we accept that conclusion, of course, the big beverage ban won't necessarily reduce total calorie intake. Diners deprived of their usual extra-large soda may be more inclined to buy dessert, for instance, or they might make up the difference at some other point in the day—not difficult to do, as Bloomberg emphasizes, given all the loopholes in his plan (e.g., for milk-based beverages, fruit juices, and sugar-sweetened drinks purchased from stores or vending machines, not to mention all manner of fattening solid food).

The lead author of the NEJM letter, Brian Elbel, is scheduled to present his findings at today's hearing. Here are some of the people the Board of Health has heard from so far:

  • Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who emphasized that the soda serving ceiling "is not a ban" but rather "a limitation on the container size." Doesn't that make it a ban on servings bigger than the prescribed size?
  • Linda Gibbs, deputy mayor for health and human services, who described how the obesity "epidemic" is "ravaging" the city.
  • David R. Jones, chief executive of the Community Service Society of New York, who condemned soft drink companies for selling "worthless items to poor communities."
  • City Councilman Dan Halloran, City Councilwoman Letitia James, and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, all three of whom spoke against the plan. "When they came for the cigarettes," Halloran said, "I didn't say anything, because I didn't smoke. When they came for the MSG, I didn't say anything because I don't eat it very often." Yikes.
  • Joy Dubost, director of nutrition and healthy living at the National Restaurant Association, who testified that "added sugars, including sugar-sweetened beverages, are no more likely to cause weight gain than other sources of calories." She called Bloomberg's proposal a "paternalistic" scheme that will produce nothing but "a false sense of accomplishment." 
  •  Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who argued that "portraying a vitally important health initiative as an assault on consumers' rights is simply distracting." Jacobson's group was inveighing against "liquid candy" long before Bloomberg took up the cause.
  • Vanessa Lockel of the American Beverage Association, who complained that the mayor's pint-size prescription "is distracting us from real issues, from real programs that actually help with regard to obesity."

The New York Times, the source of these quotes, is live-blogging the hearing and has more here. The board, which is supposed to vote on the proposed rule in September, consists entirely of Bloomberg appointees, so the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion. "Compared to smoking," Bloomberg told reporters yesterday, "this is an easy battle to win, and nobody's going to stop this."

More on Bloomberg's big beverage ban, including complaints from Board of Health members who say it does not fo far enough, here.