Last week, New York City showed the nation once again what it means to be on the cutting edge of public health policy. The city announced a bold plan to limit the size of sugary beverages sold at restaurants and other food establishments. Predictably, much of the media went crazy, and numerous outlets have already proclaimed that this time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just gone too far. Banning trans fats was fine, but don’t take away my right to guzzle a gallon of Coke is the lazy reaction of some pundits.
But let’s take a more rational look at what New York is proposing. From both a policy-making and political strategy standpoint, it makes perfect sense. No one is banning anything or restricting anyone’s freedoms. The city is simply placing a reasonable limit on how much soda (or other sugary beverage) can be served in a single container. According to Coca-Cola, in the 1950′s, the “traditional” bottle size was 6.5 ounces. New York’s proposed 16-ounce limit is roughly 2.5 times higher. Seems more than reasonable.
And the policy rationale is solid. New York City health inspectors are already charged with ensuring that food establishments comply with various health and safety measures. Given what we know about the adverse health consequences of consuming too much soda, beverage companies (along with restaurants) are essentially contaminating the food supply in a similar way that meat companies (sometimes) contaminate your hamburger with E. coli or Salmonella. Or when food workers forget to wash their hands. Or any other number of violations of the health and safety code. So if New York City can inspect food establishments to help prevent its residents from getting sick from unsanitary conditions, it follows the city should also be able to limit other health hazards such as soda. I don’t hear any New Yorkers up in arms over their right to eat bacteria-laced foods.
Moreover, government places reasonable limits on all sorts of behaviors and business practices, every single day. Such as speed limits, which are meant to protect you as well as others. Society has also decided (instead of prohibition) to place various rules on how alcohol is produced, sold, and marketed. For example, many states place upper limits on how much alcohol can be in beer–a regulation designed to protect the health and safety of the public. The sky has not fallen, beer sales are doing well, and beer drinkers are happy (mostly).
Finally, the soda proposal is a brilliant political move because it only requires the approval of the city’s board of health, unlike a tax, which failed in the state legislature thanks to heavy lobbying. Of course, industry is already threatening to go to its friends in Albany to try and stop this proposal, but it’s unlikely Governor Andrew Cuomo would support a preemptive bill. Industry may also try to sue, as it did over menu labeling (they lost) but in the meantime, the corporate PR machine is full swing. Full-page ads with images of Mayor Bloomberg dressed as a woman charging "nanny state" indicate that the best response industry can muster is (sexist) name-calling. At least for the moment.
Stay tuned, as things are likely to get ugly. While most of the news has focused on soft drink makers, the restaurant industry will also come out swinging, creating a powerful lobbying and PR combination. (McDonald’s has already expressed its displeasure.) But if it succeeds, and other cities follow New York’s lead, this idea could spark an entire new approach to regulating an unhealthy food supply.