22 June 2012

Soda Ban

I've been thinking for a couple of weeks now about writing a post on the proposed ban, by the mayor of New York City, on the sale of large-sized sugary sodas.  Just to give you the background, in case you missed it: the mayor, concerned that the consumption of sugary drinks is contributing to the current obesity epidemic, has introduced a measure to ban the sale, in delis, restaurants, sports arenas, and fast-food outlets, of any high-calorie soft drink over 16 fluid ounces.  (Details, as reported in May by the New York Times, including a helpful explanatory graphic, can be found here).  The ban would apply to soda (like Coke and Pepsi), energy drinks (like Gatorade), and sweetened iced tea (like Snapple); it would not apply to alcoholic beverages, milkshakes, juices, or artificially sweetened low-calorie beverages (like Crystal Light, Diet Coke or Diet Snapple).  It would also not apply to bottles or cans purchased in supermarkets.

The reason I haven't written this post until now is not that I don't have strong feelings about it or that I'm lazy.  It's that so much has been said about it that I'm not sure my voice can add much to the discussion.  Mayor Bloomberg has been criticized as hypocritical (his company reportedly supplies its employees with free sugary soda in the workplace, and right after announcing the proposed soda ban, he proclaimed Friday, June 1 to be "National Donut Day" - a move the New York Times charitably characterized as "sending mixed messages").  Commentators have also criticized him for establishing and promoting what they call "noodge government" or a "nanny state."  Wholehearted endorsements of the policy have been rare and lukewarm (see, for example, the response from doctors specializing in diabetes and Michelle Obama's reported response that she "applauded" the measure but was not "endorsing or condemning" it). As you can imagine, the outcry from the fast-food, live sports, and beverage industries was immediate and loud.

But I'll try my hand at weighing in on this, because I have been giving it too much thought to just let it go.  First of all, "noodge government" and "nanny state" seem to me to be the sort of hackneyed phrases that are born of knee-jerk reactions to policies that people don't like.  The government restricts our activity all the time, and when the restriction seems to us to be sensible and well-thought-out, we don't criticize it as "nanny state" politics.  We have to send our children to school.  We are not allowed to murder each other.  We cannot serve alcohol to 4-year-olds.  We must insure our vehicles when we operate them on public streets and vaccinate our dogs against rabies.  Taken to an extreme, these are all examples of the government telling us what we can and can't do, but in general, I don't have a problem with any of them.  So I prefer to talk about Mayor Bloomberg's proposed soda ban with reference to its merits and without resort to name-calling.

Here's my primary problem with Bloomberg's proposal:  I simply don't think that banning sugary soda in large containers is going to bring the population to a healthy weight level.  Obesity has many, many causes.  While caloric intake is certainly one of them, heredity also plays a role, and so do activity levels.  If we are going to tackle the problem of caloric intake, why do we single out sugary sodas and not, for example, beer or milkshakes?  Are we going to ban all the substances we eat that are not good for us?  Hot dogs?  French fries? Girl Scout cookies? White pasta?

I'm not obese, but I'm moderately overweight, and I haven't had a sugary soda in decades.  My problem stems from the other factors: too-large amounts of otherwise healthy food and insufficient activity, complicated by a genetic disposition toward heaviness and a slowing metabolism that set in shortly after I turned 35.  Banning large sugary sodas is likely to have zero effect on my health, since I don't consume them in the first place.  I'm sure I'm not alone in this situation.

Secondly, I am not sure that society has an interest in preventing obesity that is strong enough to justify telling people what they can and cannot eat and drink.  To illustrate my point, consider the heavy taxes we levy on cigarettes.  Discouraging people from smoking has a direct effect on lung cancer rates, since cigarette smoke is indisputably the leading cause of lung cancer.  Smoking hurts not just the smoker, but the people around him, who have no choice but to breathe the air and are therefore the passive victims of his behavior.  Society has a strong interest in protecting the population from the ambient cause of a deadly disease.  But soda is simply not the same thing.  My drinking a Super Sized Coke has no effect whatsoever on the health of the person sitting next to me.  My choice is my choice, and it affects only me.  I think this distinction weakens the rationale for banning unhealthy food and drink.

Don't misunderstand.  I don't think that obesity is not a major concern of our times.  And I understand that there are other reasons that the consumption of sugary sodas is bad, in a general sense.  The production of high fructose corn syrup is an environmental disaster.  So are the production and disposal of the cans and bottles used to package soda.  But to single out a single food and ban it for the good of society seems like a poorly-reasoned, simplistic response to a problem with complicated causes and effects.

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