Last Thursday, New York City’s Board of Health approved its first so-called “soda ban” on what it’s calling “sugary drinks” in restaurants. The policy, which has been met with enthusiasm from anti-obesity experts and glum annoyance from people who drink soda, is a somewhat controversial and definitely groundbreaking public health measure aimed at forcibly helping people to control their portion sizes, whether they want to or not.
For all the lauding of this effort by public health advocates, you’d think the move banned sodas altogether, but no: all it does is mandate that any business with a city-issued food service license not serve “sugary beverages” -- apparently this includes not only sodas but other drinks with sugar in them, although how much sugar counts as “sugary” remains unclear in the coverage I’ve read, so I guess they’ll be funding a lab to figure this out -- in glasses larger than 16 ounces.
Seriously. All it does is regulate the size of an individual cup.
No, no wait, it gets funnier.
[Mayor Michael Bloomberg] rejected suggestions that the rule constitutes an assault on personal liberty. "Nobody is banning anything," he said, noting that restaurant customers can still buy as much soda as they want, as long as they are willing to carry it in multiple containers.
SEE? Nobody is banning anything! You'll just have to carry a bunch of separate cups so it’s not quite so easy to just pull up to the soda-bearing trough like sugar-addicted swine and gorge ourselves until we are rendered immobile by our continuous and mindless inhalation of Coke and Pepsi products. TOTALLY REASONABLE, right?
OK, so I’m not a big soda-drinker. In restaurants, I always drink either water or tea, and my only soda-based weakness is that delicious non-corn-syrup-laced pop unicorn, the Mexican Coke, which comes in glass bottles like the fine rare vintage it is. But even then, this is a drink I indulge in rather infrequently, because I think of it as a special treat and not a standard accompaniment to every meal.
This means that as these soda portion-size bans have been proposed and discussed in a few places nationwide, including Cambridge, MA, a place near to home where I do both eat and drink things on a regular basis, I didn’t really react from a “MY COLD DEAD HANDS” kind of place. Mostly I thought these efforts were strangely specific and uncomfortable. It’s almost as if here we have a city that for years has been averting its eyes when you tripped and fell and skinned your knee on the sidewalk, and all of a sudden it wants to be your MOM.
It would be easy to laugh this off as both ridiculous and not worth the effort of unpacking as a social issue, but that would miss the fact that the passage of this ban represents a cultural shift that could become a lot more invasive should it continue unchecked.
New York has long been a bellwether state for dramatic public health policies that have since spread nationwide; New York was among the first to ban cigarette smoking in restaurants, to require calorie info be printed on the menus of chain restaurants, as well as eliminating heart-choking trans fats in food. Not all of these are bad ideas, but they’re becoming increasingly invasive. Thus, it’s not a stretch to suggest that this type of soda ban could easily start to gain momentum in other cities should the New York version be upheld.
Some health experts said it isn't clear whether the ban will have any effect on obesity. But they said it might help usher in a change in attitude toward overeating, in the same way that many Americans have come to regard smoking as inconsiderate.
Honest question: Do we Americans really lack sufficient shame and loathing for people who publicly and unabashedly overeat? Aren’t we pretty well stocked in that department already? Isn’t that precisely why fat people continue to be socially reviled, because we’re so keen to assume that their size represents their allegedly out-of-control eating habits? Are we really arguing that making people MORE weird and obsessive and self-conscious about how others perceive their food intake is a forward-thinking and positive goal?
I would argue that smoking is thought of as inconsiderate primarily on the basis that the smoker may affect the health of innocent bystanders though her secondhand smoke; as an asthmatic, I wouldn’t necessarily call a nearby smoker “inconsiderate” for doing her thing but I would probably try to put some distance between us because her actions might trigger an asthma attack in me, which would be an obviously unpleasant result.
On the other hand, the dude buying a 20-piece box of McNuggets may inspire some to shake their heads in disgust, but his McNugget-reveling consumption doesn’t make them sick. Nor does it make them fatter, or less healthy, or overeaters themselves.
The question of whether American portion sizes have become absurd is a conversation worth having, but I still think people should be allowed to choose what and how much they eat. After all, just because someone plunks 32 ounces of Sprite in front of you doesn’t mean you are compelled by the restaurant staff to empty the glass on pain of death.
"I feel to not act would really be criminal," said board member Susan Klitzman, director of the Urban Public Health Program at Hunter College. City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley called the rule "a historic step to address a major health problem of our time."
New York City businesses worried that this move will hurt their income have called it a purely political move, and it sure does look that way considering the only thing being affected is cup size and whether other drinks like iced coffee and tea will have to be sweetened by the customer after being served in order to avoid the 16-ounce limitation.
Also, there is no clear evidence that this move will have a measureable and positive effect on either obesity rates or overall city health.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped those who passed the ban from patting themselves on the back for being the obesity-destroying public health crusaders they believe they now are. To hear them, you’d think the New York Board of Health had single-handedly solved obesity. This ban is fighting for truth and justice! This ban is like a regulatory anti-fat Batman, dropping into dark alleys to save fat people from their own poor choices!
This ban is EXACTLY like that time I saw a kitten trapped in a tree and climbed the tree and saved the kitten even though it scratched the shit out of my arm because I guess it didn’t understand that I was saving it BECAUSE IT’S A STUPID KITTEN THAT IGNORANTLY MANAGED TO GET ITSELF STUCK IN THE FIRST PLACE.
I’m not generally a fan of the term “nanny state” because I think it’s woefully misused to condemn people (of whom there are literal millions and millions in the US) who rely on some form of public assistance -- be it Medicare or food stamps or the ability to deduct their mortgage interest on their taxes -- in order to live. But New York City’s sugary beverage ban sure seems to fit some kind of “nanny state” description, as it operates to prevent (or at least make inconvenient) the ability of individuals to self-determine whether they want a really huge soda or not.
Whether it survives to take effect in March remains to be seen -- local businesses and organizations are already mobilizing to sue before that happens -- but either way, it represents our growing cultural urge to police one another’s choices and bodies. The ban itself may not be particularly frightening, but the movement behind it certainly is, and laughing it off could lead to an uncomfortable slide down a slippery slope into portion-size regulation on multiple fronts. Are you okay with your city government telling you how to eat? I’m certainly not.