New York City

Food Bans Move to the Fore of New York City Mayoral Race

The mayor's race in New York City is anyone's to win. Who will be the victor? My money's on the anti-Bloomberg.

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New York City's mayoral race is heating up as the city enters the dog days of summer.

Disgraced former House Rep. Anthony Weiner has quickly erased the lead of the former frontrunner, City Council chair Christine Quinn, since entering the race just seven weeks ago. But now polls show a third candidate, former city comptroller Bill Thompson, has moved into a near-statistical tie with both Weiner and Quinn.

Thompson is largely an unknown even within the city. Weiner's name is virtually synonymous with damaged goods. And Quinn is increasingly viewed in an unfavorable light. Her new autobiography, released late last month in a move timed to boost her campaign, instead sold an embarrassing 100 copies in its first week.

In a race that appears to be anyone's to win, it may be that (shockingly) issues decide the race.

And it may also be that the candidate who appears most unlike the increasingly unpopular incumbent, Michael Bloomberg, will be New York City's next mayor.

For many New Yorkers, Bloomberg is synonymous with his proposed soda ban. So while he spends his last days in office struggling to force a court to overturn a judge's earlier ruling that scrapped his ban, what are Quinn, Weiner, and Thompson doing to distinguish themselves from Hizzoner?

Earlier this week, Quinn—who opposes the soda ban—floated a plan of her own that's in many ways indistinguishable from Bloomberg's.

Quinn told an audience outside the Union Square greenmarket (note: no cheese slicing allowed) that if elected she would ban any kids' meal for sale by a chain restaurant in the city that contains more than 650 calories, 7 grams of saturated fat, and 740 milligrams of sodium.

"You'll still be able to order whatever you think is right for your children," said Quinn, according to the NY Post. "But we're saying that companies can't spend millions of dollars on marketing or include items on children's menus if those foods clearly are going to lead to obesity."

I reached out by email to a public-health scholar who had replied to a tweet of mine critical of Quinn's proposal.

"Health departments and policymakers want to take action to reduce obesity, but citizens want to make their own decisions on what to eat—I like Quinn's plan because it allows both," says Daniel Taber, an assistant professor with the University of Texas School of Public Health (who notes the opinion is his own alone).

Taber agrees with Quinn that what I and others have labeled a food ban of Bloomberg-sized proportions is nothing of the sort.

"If you're gonna send that message to parents that this meal is good for a child," says Quinn, failing to explain where McDonald's (or its competitors) ever claimed its Happy Meal is good for a child, "we're going to make sure that we actually know it's good for a child."

While the Post says Quinn's plan "could sound the death knell for McDonald's cheeseburger Happy Meal, which packs 875 milligrams of sodium," I believe her plan is a foolhardy one that may instead sound the death knell for her own campaign.

Weiner's status as a sort of anti-Bloomberg is largely a wild card. While critics like Quinn note that during his dozen years in Congress he "wrote only one bill that was ultimately signed into law," given the laws Congress tends to introduce and pass, I think Weiner deserves credit rather than scorn for his legislative restraint.

What's his stance on Bloomberg's soda ban or Quinn's Happy Meal ban, or for that matter any other food ban?

No one appears to know, save Weiner.

The National Journal reports Weiner "hasn't waded into the battle over Big Gulps." But the magazine also reports Weiner has been busy "positioning himself more as a libertarian," which offers a meager hint he'd oppose both Bloomberg's and Quinn's ban—and any like them.

Weiner didn't respond to my tweet asking him to comment for this column on the issue.

So all we've got are the National Journal's clues and this recent interaction with a future voter, courtesy Buzzfeed:

"Any new laws you want passed," asked Weiner as he bent down to speak to a child at a Queens beach last weekend. "Anything to do with dessert?"

"The child was silent," reports Buzzfeed. Phew.

Thompson, the unknown who easily has my favorite celebrity support (in the form of a YouTube video by salsa musician Willie Colón, "Bill Thompson Transformando Neuva York," that manages to squeeze one minute of music and video into two minutes of airtime), also has the best and most blunt response so far to Mayor Bloomberg's soda ban.

"Today's ruling unmasks Mayor Bloomberg's misguided soda ban policy for what it is: a cosmetic solution to a complex problem," Thompson wrote after a state judge struck down the ban in March. "To solve the serious health challenge of our city, we need leadership, not gimmicks."

After twelve years of the latter under Mayor Bloomberg, New Yorkers appear increasingly to thirst for the former.