Home Friday 5 Friday 5: 5 Reasons The Idea Of “Soda Bans” Drives Me Nuts… And I Don’t Even Drink It!

Friday 5: 5 Reasons The Idea Of “Soda Bans” Drives Me Nuts… And I Don’t Even Drink It!

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Even though I’m a [probationary] New Yorker, there are some New Yorker conversations that I just stay out of. I don’t do the Mets vs. Yankees convos, or even the Giants vs. Jets convos (though I’ll silently sport mu Jets pullover that Eddy snagged for me). I don’t participate in the Brooklyn vs. [insert borough] debates. I also don’t debate with native (or, at least, more-native-than-I-am, which isn’t hard) New Yorkers over whether or not I should be calling it “pop” or “soda.” (“C’mon, you live here now! Let that country sh-t go!”)

So, not surprisingly, I’ve avoided contributing to the discussion about whether or not New York City dwellers should be able to buy the super-sweetened beverages in sizes larger than 20oz, anyway. And, for the most part, I was pretty successful.

I dodged the discussion when it first hit the news. I dodged the discussion when the “Delivering Choices NYC” campaign hit every single subway train. I even dodged the astro-turfed “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices,” stalking people at the Union Square farmers’ market. And, somehow, I managed to contain myself when I ran across this woman wearing a version of this snarky shirt on the train.

Grrrrr, I wanted to bop her with a rolled up newspaper.

However. When I spoke at The Root/Washington Post’s headquarters at their Focus on Obesity conference this past summer, there it was. The question.

“Erika, what do you think about banning certain drink sizes?”

On the inside, I’m pretty sure I groaned. I had to hope it didn’t get picked up by the microphone… especially since I was sitting next to the individual who was the representative for the American Beverage Association that day.

Needless to say, I don’t drink sugary things. Pop (yes, dang it, it’s pop), juice, drank, whatever. I don’t want it, I don’t like it, I don’t need it. I’ve stayed silent on this because, even though I don’t drink the junk, I still have issues with the city banning it in this way.

It’s complex, though. How do you tell someone “No, I wouldn’t drink that sh-t, but it shouldn’t be banned!” without them responding with something akin to “Oh, so you’ll let everyone else get all fat by drinking it, but you won’t drink it yourself?” (This has happened before. It surely has.)

To recap:

New York City’s Board of Health voted Thursday to ban the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces in restaurants and other venues, in a move meant to combat obesity and encourage residents to live healthier lifestyles.

The board voted eight in favor, with one abstention.

“It’s time to face the facts: obesity is one of America’s most deadly problems, and sugary beverages are a leading cause of it,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement earlier this month. “As the size of sugary drinks has grown, so have our waistlines — and so have diabetes and heart disease.”

Bloomberg’s visionary move against obesity

But the move is expected to draw further protest from the soda industry and those concerned about government involvement in their personal choices.


Critics, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, have assailed the ban as “misguided” and “arbitrary,” though Bloomberg has billed it as both a health and fiscal initiative.

New York City spends an estimated $4 billion each year on medical care for overweight people, the mayor said in an earlier statement.

One in eight New Yorkers also suffer from diabetes, a disease often linked to obesity, his office noted, calling sugary drinks “the single largest driver of these alarming increases in obesity.”

About 58% of New York City adults are considered overweight or obese, the mayor added.

In 2007, the Bloomberg-appointed health board adopted a regulation that forced restaurants to all but eliminate the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and spreads, the main sources of trans fats in the U.S. diet.

Thursday’s decision is expected to take effect in six months and be enforced by the city’s regular restaurant inspection team, allowing restaurant owners nine months to adapt to the changes before facing fines.

“6 months from today, our city will be an even healthier place,” Bloomberg tweeted on Thursday.

The ban would not apply to grocery stores.

There are five reasons why I find these kinds of laws – and the kinds of debates that surround them – problematic. Here’s why:

1) I am all for protesting, ensuring that your voice is heard and demanding the respect of the people you elected in office. That’s absolutely not what’s happening, here. When you talk to the average person about the drink issue, they’re often more apprehensive than anything else to say anything other than “Well, yeah, the city’s fat.” And the others who think the ban is wrong because they can have their regular coke in moderation may be annoyed by it, but not so much that they’re going to go out and petition against it in large numbers, ask others to petition against it as well, create websites in support of the industry, or anything else.

But, surprisingly, all of this is happening. Why?

The “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices,” completely funded by the sugary beverage (and bottled water, remember… they’re almost always the same thing) industry, were the ones who did that.

Take a gander:

Hoping for a debate about freedom, not fatness, the industry has created a coalition called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices to coordinate its public relations efforts in the city. On Thursday, the group introduced its first radio spot, a one-minute advertisement featuring “Noo Yawk”-accented actors proclaiming, “This is about protecting our freedom of choice.”

“This is New York City; no one tells us what neighborhood to live in or what team to root for,” says the narrator, as Yankees and Mets fans shout in the background. “So are we going to let our mayor tell us what size beverage to buy?” Adds one Brooklyn-tinged voice: “It’s unbelievable!”

The charge is being led by the industry’s leading trade group, the Washington-based American Beverage Association, which has retained several powerhouse political consultants for the cause, including the strategists responsible for the “Harry and Louise” television advertisements that helped defeat President Bill Clinton’s health care plan in the 1990s.

The beverage association would not disclose its budget for the New York campaign, but Eliot Hoff, a spokesman for the coalition, said it was “prepared to utilize whatever resources are necessary.” [source]

The discussion can’t be an open and honest one with one side being financed and manufactured as a tool in a marketing campaign.

To be fair, thereis a poll taken by the Times that says…

“Six in 10 residents said the mayor’s soda plan was a bad idea, compared with 36 percent who called it a good idea. A majority in every borough was opposed; Bronx and Queens residents were more likely than Manhattanites to say the plan was a bad idea. ” [source]

…but in the days of lethargy and general complacency, who is about to spend their fine Saturday afternoon in the hot sun trolling the Square asking people to sign a petition so they can buy their big gulps? 60% or not?

2) It was actually pretty funny. The idea of the ban was floated around, and then before we knew it? The subways were covered with images of happily smiling white men in baseball caps pushing dollies full of half-sized and full-sized pop cans. They were delivering choice, of course.

Whenever an idea is floated that initially infringes on an industry’s ability to make money, the industry’s members immediately band together – now, they’re no longer competitors… what’s that saying, the enemy of my enemy is also my friend? – so that they can “regulate themselves.”

Listen. This works about as well as asking a child to regulate themselves while you leave them alone with the cookie jar.

Business is a money grab, and always will be. I was actually impressed that the city ignored the industry’s attempts to regulate itself and pressed on. The reality is, as long as there is a direct and immediate benefit from doing “wrong,” it is difficult to expect a corporation to do “right.” And, by “wrong,” I mean “continue selling giant apocalyptic-sized cups of pop” and by “right,” I mean “actually be expected to continue selling the varying sizes of soft drinks for an extended period of time.” Even if we considered self-regulation, some mechanism would still have to be put into place to ensure that regulation was still regulating. We’d need, ahem… regulators. Mount up.

3) New York City originally had these phenomenally disgusting advertisements that showed someone pouring body fat out of a coke bottle into a glass.

Sick, dude.

What happened to those? Where did those go? If 59% of people surveyed are saying that kind of education is enlightening, then why did the city stop its efforts to show people just how much sugar they’re drinking and what that sugar is doing within their system? What education is the city providing, since the city clearly believes it is its responsibility to do so, to people to show them why they should cut back on the sweet stuff? Why not show people why this decision is best for them, instead of making it for them? Who learns from that?

4) When you know as much as I do about government and how incestuous the relationship is between industry and the government agencies that regulate it, you start questioning whether or not we want to set the precedent that says “Yes, government, you can dictate to me what I buy and which brands I should use.” Even though it “works out in our favor” this time, will we always be able to say that in the future? Do we really trust our government to make these kinds of decisions for us?

5) Conversely, if government doesn’t help us, who will? Do we help each other? Or do we let marketing, advertisements, and industry-financed organizations come in and tell us it’s okay to gorge ourselves on their products as long as we all run five or six miles every day? If our government doesn’t help us, then rest assured that industry will “step in” and “help” while steering you toward making whatever decision best financially benefitsthem.

When it was my turn at the mic, I gave an honest answer. I don’t drink the stuff and generally felt like the ban didn’t affect me, but I felt like the government’s resources aren’t best used by trying to create a ban on a size, and then waste resources by attempting to enforce that ban. As someone who runs a blog that basically helps people make changes by educating them to help them choose what is best for them, I know our resources would be best spent creating more advertising campaigns to show people the harmful side effects of pop and let people choose for themselves. If a child asks a parent “Why can’t I drink the big one, Mommy?” would you rather a parent respond, “I don’t know, honey, that’s the law,” or “Because too much sugar is just too bad for you.. it’s not healthy?”

Which one has the better chance of bearing fruit?

Thoughts? See why I avoided this foolishness? Can I go back to my glass of water now?

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Aja September 21, 2012 - 3:34 PM

I especially like this –>“I don’t know, honey, that’s the law,” or “Because too much sugar is just too bad for you.. it’s not healthy?”– because although the drink sizes in restaurants are an issue, they’re such a small part of such a large issue that a ban is throwing a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound. A ban isn’t going to affect the fact that I can still buy my 2 liter of coke from the store and drink it all by myself, or drink multiple cups of ” fruit juice” because that’s supposed to be healthy, or eat any multitude of foods with way too much sugar in them. On the other hand, teaching me about the relationship between sugar and obesity will hopefully help me to make better choices regardless of where I’m buying my food or what I’m eating/drinking. Great post!

Yolanda September 21, 2012 - 8:10 PM

I disagree with a ban. I think it’s intrusive and will ultimately cost consumers more as we buy 2 glasses of whatever. Next it will be your meal type and portions dictated by the government. I don’t live in NY city, thank goodness.
If the government was serious, they would spend real efforts educating kids early about nutrition and keeping gym and recreation in schools vs. cutting these out. If we were really serious about health, there would be a real discussion about farms and produce availability. But it’s political as usual.

Iris September 21, 2012 - 11:45 PM

Yes Erika, go back to your water. I have given up my coca-cola & started drinking water for every meal. Its a daily struggle but I know that its just not good for me. I don’t know what I’ll do for Thanksgiving though I can’t eat my gumbo without a coke. 🙁

Gail September 22, 2012 - 10:50 AM

Yeah, I hear ya, Erika. I get so discouraged. Choice is such a loose interpretation. Pop is so addicting, so legal, so fun.

I’ve said it before about all our chronic public health problems that revolve around “choice.” Until the day arrives when we’re too broke to spend 4 billion a year on sickness care in one lone city, the majority public won’t make better choices.

It’s too bad it will have to come to that, and it’s not that I’m celebrating that outcome. But it is a fact.

Carol September 23, 2012 - 2:08 AM

This is actually a really good point. I am from Europe so I just read about this ban in some article and I agreed with it completely just because it seems so insane to drink a beverage that size anyway. But I really see your point now about it being better to educate people on the dangers of that junk rather than just banning them from drinking it. I think the food industry has a stronger grip on society in America than it does in Europe. In Europe we still have a very fixed food culture in terms of what we eat, when we eat it, how we eat it but it is being eroded every day by the massively powerful and profitable multinationals. I hope people in the US can take back some of the power off these companies and re-introduce people to some of the incredible resources you have there to produce truly good food.

ab February 26, 2013 - 12:02 PM

Sigh.. I really dislike this tunnel vision Europeans seem to have when it comes to the massive failures of their food industry in comparism to the US food industry.

I live in ‘Europe’ were food isn’t really food. Chocolate is more milk than actually chocolate and people drink themselves silly.

I dare you to go regulate the Russian Vodka Market.
i dare you to regulate pork products in Czech Republic.
Where exactly did the Horse for beef scandal occur? (in Europe)

What we lack for size we make up in sugar. Cookies, cakes, buns, fairy cakes that are filled with sugar and butter.
We might not have massive serving sizes like the US, but we sure do make up for it in the sugar contained in our tiny sized meals.
Evidence: Teeth. (although now everyone caps them)

SpecialK September 23, 2012 - 4:00 PM

I am a New Yorker and I don’t drink soda either. I think the ban is awful, though. While I don’t like the idea of the soda industry pushing “choice,” I don’t believe government should regulate our consumption of food and drink. The focus should be on making sure that New Yorkers in every community have access to affordable healthy food. Many people buy processed food because they see fresh food as being unattainable and unaffordable. The part I hate most though is that the regulations don’t apply to diet soda, which is full or more toxic junk than regular soda. I think that Emperor Bloomberg had his goons pass this bill not because he cares about our health but because there is revenue (sales tax) in making people purchase more containers in order to get the amount of soda that they want. Let us not be fooled.

ab February 26, 2013 - 12:05 PM

I don’t like the ban. It reeks of giving up on education.
Also I don’t like the advert with showing fat being poured into a cup. I mean seriously….

How do we demonstrate the danger of anorexia? why is everything so focused on fat and not health?.

And why are they simply not legislating the amount of sugar allowed in a drink.
Deal with the wound, not the scab.

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