Monday, June 4, 2012

Bloomberg vs. Big Soda: Portion Size, Paternalism and Politics - June 01, 2012

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made headlines by announcing his administration's plan to ban the sale of sugary drinks offered in containers larger than 16 ounces. The proposed "large soda" ban would affect food service establishments like restaurants, movie theaters and street vendors, but would not affect grocery or convenience stores. (Diet sodas, fruit juices, milk-based drinks and alcoholic beverages would be exempted.)

The move, which would take effect next March, falls under the purview of the city's health department. It therefore seems unlikely to require any outside approval beyond its likely passage by the city's Board of Health.

As a writer who blogs daily about kids and food, I'm deeply immersed in the issue of childhood obesity and its related ills. I've reported on children needing weight-related knee replacements and new research indicating that diabetes, which is on the rise among teens, may be a much more pernicious illness in pediatric patients than in adults. I also know that excess sugar consumption harms the health of all children, even those who are not overweight. So you might assume I'd welcome Bloomberg's large-sized soda ban with great enthusiasm.

Instead, I feel ambivalent about it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm no fan of the soda industry (one that rightly has been compared to Big Tobacco) and while some commentators are dubious, I accept the proposition that the consumption of sugary beverages, particularly soda, has been a major driver of our current obesity and health crisis. I support the idea of a soda tax; I even approved of a more controversial proposal (also Bloomberg's), which would have exempted soda purchases from the food stamps program.

I stand behind any measures to curb the advertising of soda to children, including the intrusion of beverage companies into schools through bus advertising, vending machines and support of athletic programs. I'd even be OK with sticking a warning label on non-nutritive sugary beverages. In short, I have absolutely no problem with public policies that encourage health-promoting behavior and disincentives which lead people to avoid harmful behavior.

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