Carbonated Controversy

This past week, New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg introduced a ban on sugary drinks, making the sale of non-diet soda and coffee, amongst other beverages, illegal at popular locales like movie theatres, sports bars, and restaurants. The announcement was quickly met with disdain, anger, shock, and sarcasm as New Yorkers attempt to understand Bloomberg’s unusual and restrictive proposal.

Supposed "debates" about the ban have spread across the Internet, but most read as entirely unrelated conversations. On one side, a health specialist enumerates the dangers of high amounts of sugar, the increasing national obesity rate, and the medical costs associated with being obese, and proposes recommendations for portion control and healthier diets. The other side opens with the same concerns about obesity, its dangers, and the unhealthy nature of soda, but the crux of its argument is that it is not the job of the government to enforce the particulars of a citizen’s diet. This ban, really, raises two distinct issues.

First are the specifics of the ban itself. Few, save for some soda companies, are arguing that consuming large amounts of the sugary drink have no negative effects. No campaigns are being run suggesting that the secret to a healthy lifestyle is a 20 ounce can of coke. Questions arise, however, in reference to the seemingly arbitrary details of the proposed legislation. The ban, as it stands, does nothing to actually prevent the consumption of more than 16 ounces of soda, it merely legislates the circumstances under which that quantity may be consumed. There is no ban against ordering two sodas, nor is there any against purchasing large quantities of soda in grocery or convenience stores. The ban, although proposed under the guise of trying to quell rising obesity, does little to actually meet that goal. It does not restrict the sale of diet sodas, although there is much controversy as to whether diet drinks actually are healthier than their regular counterparts. The proposed legislation is based upon flawed assumptions: namely, that individuals are the ones buying large cups of soda to necessarily consume on their own – not to share with family or friends – and that banning the sale of more than 16 ounces of soda in certain areas will prevent anyone from consuming more than said amount.

“Can I get a large pitcher of Coca-Cola for the family?”

“No, ma’am, that’s illegal, but I can serve you as many 16 ounce cups as you’d like!”

Prefer your coffee without milk? Two runs to Starbucks when you write that late night paper is certainly better than one quick walk for a Venti, as the ban applies to non milk-based coffee beverages.  The details of the ban certainly are silly, but the overarching motive is fair, perhaps even noble.

The more important and contested issue, therefore, is not the what of the ban but the who, the where, and the how. As relevant as the previous questions are, they are being debated in the wrong arena. Conversations about obesity are necessary. Discussions about the health benefits of smaller portion sizes and healthier selections are beneficial. Further debate over whether diet options are indeed healthier can only help consumers make the right decisions. But such questions, argue most opponents of the ban, belong in the labs of scientists and kitchen tables of families and counters of McDonalds and Starbucks. The New York City government has previously sponsored advertisement campaigns that educate residents about the high sugar content of sodas, with brightly colored posters splashed across subway cars and buses. But an actual ban brings the fight against obesity and unhealthiness to an entirely new level. It is not for the mayor of New York, many argue, to dictate what quantity of soda every resident in every borough may purchase. It is not for the mayor to decide that a group of friends can’t purchase an extra-large Pepsi to share while they watch The Avengers. Actually, Mayor Bloomberg is proposing that you bring your extra-large friend along to refill your 16 ounce cups throughout the film’s 143 minute run time.  Of course, this is not actually the case, but why should offensive and invasive mayoral dictates stop at soda?

The slippery slope argument has its downfalls, but with the introduction of the soda ban, it seems as if New York is already halfway down the slide. First the mayor banned smoking in public places; this was contested, but with the concerns over the dangers of secondhand smoke, the ban was not seen as outrageous. The trans-fat ban was more problematic, forcing restaurants to rethink menus and ingredients in a short period of time, and angering many owners. Bloomberg’s most ridiculous health initiative prior to the soda ban, however, was the prohibition against donating surplus cooked food to homeless shelters, because there was no way to measure the salt, fat, and calorie content of the food.

Such attempts at controlling the personal decisions of individual citizens are seen as inexcusable invasions into private life. According to a New York Post poll, the ban was opposed by a whopping 52 percent of New Yorkers in January, before it was even proposed. What makes the ban especially irksome to New Yorkers is that it is seen as just another one of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to dictate the details of daily life. The bizarrely specific ban on sodas is – pardon the pun – the last straw.

But what is perhaps most frustrating about the ban is that it has become the topic of heated debate across the city since the now infamous announcement. New York City is facing more pertinent issues, from crime and poverty to the need for education reform.  Today’s most pressing debate should center on the latest economic initiative or education proposal or MTA budget – not the size of a Pepsi.  And unfortunately, with Bloomberg’s relentless campaign to dictate the health choices of every New York City resident, issues that really matter – and that are really the business of the office of the mayor – are being sidelined.