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.)
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.”
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.
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?