Bloomberg vs. Big Soda: Portion Size, Paternalism and Politics

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made headlines by announcing his administration's plan to ban the sale of sugary drinks offered in containers larger than 16 ounces. The proposed "large soda" ban would affect food service establishments like restaurants, movie theaters and street vendors, but would not affect grocery or convenience stores. (Diet sodas, fruit juices, milk-based drinks and alcoholic beverages would be exempted.)

The move, which would take effect next March, falls under the purview of the city's health department. It therefore seems unlikely to require any outside approval beyond its likely passage by the city's Board of Health.

As a writer who blogs daily about kids and food, I'm deeply immersed in the issue of childhood obesity and its related ills. I've reported on children needing weight-related knee replacements and new research indicating that diabetes, which is on the rise among teens, may be a much more pernicious illness in pediatric patients than in adults. I also know that excess sugar consumption harms the health of all children, even those who are not overweight. So you might assume I'd welcome Bloomberg's large-sized soda ban with great enthusiasm.

Instead, I feel ambivalent about it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm no fan of the soda industry (one that rightly has been compared to Big Tobacco) and while some commentators are dubious, I accept the proposition that the consumption of sugary beverages, particularly soda, has been a major driver of our current obesity and health crisis. I support the idea of a soda tax; I even approved of a more controversial proposal (also Bloomberg's), which would have exempted soda purchases from the food stamps program.

I stand behind any measures to curb the advertising of soda to children, including the intrusion of beverage companies into schools through bus advertising, vending machines and support of athletic programs. I'd even be OK with sticking a warning label on non-nutritive sugary beverages. In short, I have absolutely no problem with public policies that encourage health-promoting behavior and disincentives which lead people to avoid harmful behavior.

But forbidding people outright to buy the size of soda they desire strikes me as quite paternalistic and intrusive and -- if my Twitter feed is any gauge of public sentiment -- likely to fuel resentment. And while it's true that Bloomberg's other, similarly coercive health measure -- the banning of smoking in restaurants -- was controversial when announced but is now widely accepted, one key difference is that smoking in restaurants not only adversely affects the smoker, but also the non-smokers around him. With soda, though, there is no immediate harm to bystanders that might otherwise justify the proposal in the minds of many New Yorkers.

There may also be problems implementing the ban. First, one clear flaw is that at fast food establishments and other venues where free refills are the norm, nothing in the proposal would prevent customers from bypassing the soda limit by simply refilling their 16-ounce cup. Similarly, convenience stores like 7-Eleven (which are currently expanding in New York City) might be exempt from the ban, ironically preserving the most iconic super-sized sugary drink of them all: the Big Gulp.

Second, there's the possibility that the ban will actually create the perverse economic result of normal soda drinkers subsidizing the excess soda-drinking of others in establishments offering free refills. And if determined soda-buyers choose to buy multiple smaller containers and/or vendors raise soda prices, the plan could conceivably function as a back-door soda tax -- but one that lines the pockets of soda purveyors, instead of providing revenue to the government (which may use the funds to defray obesity-related healthcare costs).

Third, such a ban is likely to disproportionately affect poorer New Yorkers. This might seem like an odd concern from someone who supported the food stamp soda ban, but I see a categorical difference between the use of government-issued supplemental food benefits for an entirely non-nutritive beverage, versus spending one's own money on it. In that regard, it's notable that a 24-ounce McDonald's Coke (with 81g of sugar) would be banned, but the much pricier 24-ounce Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappucino (with 87g of sugar) would likely not, due to its milk content.

Finally, while no fault of Bloomberg's (who is necessarily limited to taking action only within his city), nothing in his proposal gets at one of the roots of Americans' over-consumption of soda -- that is, the wrongheaded agricultural subsidies that have resulted in a liter bottle of Coke being cheaper than a similar-sized container of skim milk.

All of this said, though, I do admire Mayor Bloomberg for his dogged, forward-thinking approaches to improving public health in his city, where, currently, over half of adults are overweight or obese. Undeterred by the prior defeat of his proposed soda tax and food stamp/soda ban -- and the $70 million spent by the soda lobby around the country since 2009 to defeat such measures -- Bloomberg's latest salvo does show ingenuity and real political courage.

So it may well be that, after a lot of initial grumbling, New Yorkers will eventually grow accustomed to thinking of a "large soda" as containing 16 ounces, which, it's worth noting, is still twice as large as the serving size Americans thought of as "standard" back in the 1950s. Moreover, if the measure proves at all successful in lowering the city's rates of disease and/or obesity, that data could prove to be a powerful tool in future battles against Big Soda.

If any of that comes to pass, I'll happily eat my words here. And wash them down with a very small glass of Coke.

[This piece originally appeared on the website of The Guardian.]