Ripped Out of a Sugar Delirium: The New York City Soda Ban

Say you’re in New York City, walking down Fifth Avenue perhaps, and you decide to buy a soda. Without much trouble, you spot the first of many street carts piled high with ice cold plastic bottles of soda to quench your thirst. Doesn’t sound too difficult, but next year it could be.

Last week the mayor of New York City, Mr. Bloomberg, proposed a ban on selling large sodas and other sugary drinks (ex: bottled sweet teas) containing over 16 fluid ounces. The ban’s extent would be unprecedented, applying to not just street vendors but movie theatres, ball parks, and even fast food restaurants. All would be done in the hopes of combating obesity in the city. If approved, containers of sodas, sweet teas, etc. that surpass 16 fluid ounces would have to be taken off shelves, and cups at fast food restaurants and sporting events would also have to be 16 fluid ounces or fewer.

The proposal wouldn’t affect diet sodas, fruit juices, milkshakes and other dairy drinks, or alcohol. Grocery stores, convenience stores, and vending machines wouldn’t be affected either.

Not surprisingly the reactions to this intriguing proposal have been swift and mixed.

It’s a sticky situation – pun intended.

Everyone can agree that obesity is an epidemic that we face in this country. Soda, in many ways, seems like a natural choice to target because of its lack of nutrients and empty calories. Mr. Bloomberg is coming from a good place, but many citizens of New York City won’t see it that way.

“Given the backlash that’s already come out, my guess is that people will be more inclined to see this as infringement on their rights versus a way to help address obesity. Banning sugary drinks is likely perceived as a punishment which certainly doesn’t motivate people to change their behaviors,” our own Dr. Christine Peat says about the topic.

Many people against the ban also point out that just because there is a correlation between obesity and sugary drinks doesn’t prove causation. They also question why other drinks, like diet sodas, weren’t addressed in the proposal, even though they too have no real nutrient value.

“It’s interesting though that they only banned sugared drinks, and artificially sweetened drinks are still allowed. Cindy [Dr. Bulik] talks in her book CRAVE about how artificial sweeteners are many, many times more sweet than sugar and can set us up to crave sweeter and sweeter drinks and foods. I think we need to be clear that the problem with sugar sweetened beverages is not just “empty” calories but how these super sweet tastes can hijack our brain’s responses to food,” says Dr. Stephanie Zerwas.

Maybe the bigger question is why the soda companies aren’t the target of regulations.

“I think it might be more effective to enforce more stringent rules on the companies that sell and promote these items than the consumers. It’s the corporations and advertisers who need to act more responsibly versus blaming individuals for their (over)weight,” says Dr. Peat

Dr. Peat has a point. The soda companies target their advertising towards children, continue to make larger and larger soda containers, and deliberately try to stall legislation that would cut into their profits.

It’s worth pointing out that it’s uncertain how the proposed small drink sizes would affect businesses. Businesses could just charge more for the smaller drinks if their sales drop, as Mr. Bloomberg suggests, but it may not be that simple. Movie theaters already charge high prices for drinks with the idea that for the high price you’re getting a high volume product in return. If cup sizes were to go down and prices still remain high, would as many people buy the drinks? If not, where else would they raise prices to compensate?

In response to potential backlash, Mr. Bloomberg clarifies that he isn’t banning soda altogether. In fact most people could get around the ban by using free refills and purchasing more than one drink.

Our own Dr. Kim Brownley raised a critical point, “I am curious to see if the legislation passes, and, if it does, if the city of New York makes any attempt to measure its impact.” Without outcome data, how will we ever know whether this was an effective intervention that should be exported to other cities.

If the proposal is approved, it could be effective as early as next March.

By: Jenny Claire Knight