New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed a big soda ban in May 2012, and his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, has vociferously supported the initiative. The mayors aimed to limit sodas to 16-ounce servings in many locations around the city.
The effort has fallen flat. A court ruled in June that the New York City Board of Health, the administrative body that intended to implement the ban, overstepped the limits of its power, and that such initiatives should be left to the City Council, an elected legislative body.
In an earlier ruling in March of 2013, the ban was overturned on the basis of its “arbitrary and capricious” nature. Indeed, while soda is often blamed for the crisis of obesity and diabetes, other sugary drinks not targeted by the ban are equally harmful. Exceptions from the rule enjoyed by some businesses, such as convenience stores and grocery stores, were also criticized as arbitrary.
The public never much supported the effort to ban big sodas. Public opinion polls regularly showed that only a small minority of New Yorkers supported the soda ban, and a majority opposed it. The rest remained undecided.
Public health advocates, on the other hand, generally supported the initiative and have lamented its failure. They claim that limiting soda sizes would curtail the consumption of cheap, nutritionally vacant calories, and consumers would thereby be protected from obesity and diabetes. Public health advocates blame the lack and erosion of public support on the millions spent by the beverage industry to frame the soda ban as an infringement of individual liberty and unfair to businesses.
This chapter of the soda ban saga has more or less sputtered out; the New York City courts and the public have spoken clearly and conclusively. But it is not the last we’ll hear of such efforts. City health officials have vowed to do a better job next time of winning the hearts and minds of the public. Many legal objections to the rule are based on technicalities that may be smoothed over – by extending the rule to all sugary drinks, eliminating exceptions and loopholes, and gaining support from City Council. Additionally, there are other strategies that could be pursued to a similar end; in California, the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco may soon implement taxes (rather than bans) on sugary drinks.
All of these efforts are of noble intent, and I find it challenging to take seriously the notion that limiting sugary drink consumption by whatever means wouldn’t improve public health, as various extreme voices suggest. It seems likely that if New York City sodas were sold in smaller sizes, at least some people would drink less soda. That would be a win for public health.
But is a ban or tax is the most effective means of curtailing our sugary drink habit? The underlying message and assumption seems to be that without such measures, consumers will continue to buy absurdly large sodas, which will naturally sustain market demand for absurdly large sodas.
The Board of Health aims to do a better job of convincing the public that a big soda ban is good for them, hoping to reframe their efforts as “giving consumers the option” to drink more reasonably sized beverages. But why not spend that money and energy – and political and cultural capital – on convincing people not to consume too much soda? To buy less soda?
A ban on big sodas would eliminate big sodas from the market, but so, too, would a sudden collapse of market demand.
In fact, convincing the public to drink less soda has already proven effective. Consumption of soda has declined precipitously over the last nine years. It’s no wonder the beverage industry fought the New York City soda ban so vigorously. Consumers are realizing that excessive soda consumption may lead to obesity and diabetes, and they are cutting back in response.
Unfortunately for our collective health, the decline in soda consumption has been counteracted by increased consumption of equally sugary sports drinks and sweetened fruit juices. A soda ban would do little to combat this trend.
What would probably help more is to extend the public health message to say that overconsumption of sugary drinks – all sugary drinks – may lead to diabetes, obesity, and related medical conditions.
It is clear from the attempts of New York City Board of health and numerous other administrative bodies across the nation that banning or taxing a product like soda is difficult, expensive, and often fruitless. Such efforts also seem to presume that consumers will not modify their behavior – that no productive cultural shift will occur.
Why not, instead, faith in the common sense and self-preservation instincts of the general public? That is not to say, as many have, that the government should not get involved in food choices. Existing education and advocacy programs empower consumers by providing them the knowledge they need to make healthy choices. Michelle Obama is doing it with her Let’s Move campaign. Tools like the Nutrition Facts label, which the FDA is redesigning for the first time in 20 years to reflect advances in our understanding of nutrition, increase transparency of food information.
These successes (such as the existence of a Nutrition Facts label) and failures (such as the misperception that some sugary drinks are healthier than soda) can guide our next steps. With what may be naïve optimism, I predict that sugary drink sales will flag as consumers sour on the products that are so damaging to our public health. If such a cultural shift does not occur, a ban, tax, or some such form of market intervention will be needed to reduce consumption of sugary drinks. I’m not yet convinced the situation is so hopeless.