The NYC soda ban hearing: best arguments for and against

In a supersized debate opinions flowed over at the public hearing on New York City’s proposed ban on large-sized sodas, on which the Board of Health is set to vote on Sept 13. Here are some of the for and against opinions…

Hundreds of people gathered on Tuesday at the New York City Board of Health’s public hearing to weigh in on Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s controversial proposal to ban large-size sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages from the city’s restaurants, delis, sports arena vendors, movie theaters and food carts.

The hearing drew health and nutrition experts, politicians and beverage industry representatives, who faced off over the proposed ban, on which the Board of Health is scheduled to vote in September.

Although the issue is a local one, its outcome is likely to effect national change: Bloomberg’s previous policies — his public smoking ban, trans fat ban and mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus, for example — have sparked similar federal laws or have been adopted by other cities and localities.

The soda ban has similarly triggered a heated debate nationwide, and on Tuesday, supporters and critics each had five minutes in front of the board to express their opinions on the matter. Below is a roundup of the most notable arguments.

Nutrition and medical experts favoured the ban, which would prohibit the sale of any sugar-sweetened beverage over 16oz, arguing that it would undeniably protect public health. Large portion sizes of sugary drinks make it easy for people to overconsume calories, especially from added sugar, since overdrinking is easier than overeating, experts noted:

“Soda in large amounts is metabolically toxic. … It’s obvious that this is the right thing to do.” Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health

“Larger portions lead to overconsumption. … This is firmly established in science. There is no reason for larger portions except for more consumption.”

“You don’t feel as full when you consume calories in liquids. … These beverages are the single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet.” Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for food policy and obesity at Yale University

Supporters of the ban also compared soda companies’ marketing and lobbying tactics to those used by the tobacco industry.

Critics on the other side of the debate mocked the comparison and characterised the proposed ban as another example of the government overreaching into people’s everyday lives:

“When they came for the cigarettes, I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t smoke. When they came for the MSG, I didn’t say anything because I don’t eat it very often. … What is the government going to tell me next? What time to go to bed? How big my steaks should be?” Dan Halloran, city councilman from Queens

“This proposal restricts choice. New Yorkers can make our own choices about what to buy, and in what quantities — whether it’s soda, lemonade, tea or a juice or sports drink.” Liz Berman, president of Continental Food and Beverage.

“Added sugars, including sugar-sweetened beverages, are no more likely to cause weight gain than other sources of calories. … Regulation is not the best choice, particularly when there is little empirical scientific data to show there is a public benefit for this type of approach.”

“It’s not reasonable to blame or cite one product.” Joy Dubost, director of health for the National Restaurant Association, a Washington-based industry group

The “nanny state” argument is irrelevant, said others. The main focus should be on reining in rates of obesity and the skyrocketing health-care costs of obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and premature death. How to do that? Counter industry marketing with regulation:

“Portraying a vitally important health initiative as an assault on consumers’ rights is simply distracting. … For more than 100 years, the soda industry has had free reign and for many years it was not a problem because people mostly drank in moderation. … Now container sizes have jumped and the marketing of these drinks — especially to adolescents — has exploded to more than $2 billion a year.” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest Read more

Related reading:

Soda Ban Illogic: Comment and links from The Center for Consumer Freedom

As we noted yesterday, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is hearing public comments today on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban. And in what can best be described as convenient timing, the New England Journal of Medicine has published a letter claiming that the ban would reduce the calorie intake of the average person affected by the ban by 74 calories per restaurant visit.

Of course, that number was generated by assuming customers would not replace any of the calories lost to the ban with other calories, which research shows to be a laughable assumption. Given the number of loopholes in Bloomberg’s proposal — starting with lattes and stretching to the unaffected bottles of soda in the corner shop next door — it is ridiculous to believe that consumers will not find ways to continue consuming calories in spite of the ban. People found ways around alcohol prohibition, after all, and that required breaking the law.

No wonder then that Cornell University researchers believe that this experiment in dietary social engineering will fail catastrophically, just like the so-called “Noble Experiment” did in the 1920s. Of course, just as the prohibitionist’s solution to resistance was more prohibition, the food regulator’s solution to failure is more intrusive food regulation.

But you might resist that more intrusive regulation. A Gallup poll found that while daily soda drinkers are less than a majority, two-thirds of Americans confessed to enjoying a daily coffee — and they certainly don’t all take it black. The carrot juice house remains but a twinkle in Center for Science in the Public Interest co-founder Michael Jacobson’s eye.

Jacobson surely hopes that “the blockbuster question” of whether sugar is addictive will drive Americans into the arms of regulators and through the doors of his mythical carrot juice houses. But there’s in fact little question, as three Cambridge researchers found. They wrote, “The vast majority of overweight individuals have not shown a convincing behavioral or neurobiological profile that resembles addiction.”

When news of the proposal to ban soda first broke, we wondered what foods and drinks would be next. After all, in the eyes of health czar Thomas Farley, every New Yorker is his “patient.” If prescribing a low-soda diet fails to cure the “patients” — even if many don’t need to be cured of anything — will he prescribe a low-cheese diet next? We would ask who died and gave him that right.