In the fall of 2012, New York City introduced the newest of its health regulations: a rule against restaurants serving sodas, or any other sugary drink, in sizes over 16 ounces. They didn’t mean this as the end of soda (although the New York City health department might have thought that would be a good idea.) Large bottles of soda would still be available in grocery stores, and convenience stores like 7-11 are exempted from the rule. And, if you really want 32 ounces (or more!) of soda, you could buy an extra 16-ounce soda or two in the very same restaurant that isn’t allowed to sell you a single 32-ounce soda.
Even so, there was a huge outcry about this. Many people think that drinking large sodas is a personal decision, because it doesn’t, on the face of it, hurt anyone else. And when it comes to personal decisions, the argument goes, people should be left to do as they see fit: if they choose wisely, great. If they don’t, they’re still choosing what they want, so let them make whatever unwise or unhealthy choice suits them–it’s their life. So, it was argued, the New York City Health Department, and Mayor Bloomberg in particular, since he is known to have promoted a number of similar regulations, should mind their own business.
This response, though, ignores a lot of what really is going on with consumers. The idea behind the NYC soda ban is to restrict access to large sodas because they are widely seen as contributing to obesity and the prevalence of diabetes. Sodas are something of a double whammy: sugary drinks are thought to contribute directly to the development of Type 2 diabetes by themselves, and they also contribute to obesity, which in turn, contributes to Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is by far the most prevalent form of diabetes, and the number of cases has increased shockingly in recent years. That increase has paralleled the increase in obesity, and the increase in obesity has in turn coincided with an increase in serving sizes in restaurants, particularly in fast food restaurants. Furthermore, Type 2 diabetes has been increasingly diagnosed in teenagers and children, who, of course, are notoriously fond of junk food, and perhaps especially of soda. So the reasons for the large soda ban is that it seems like a relatively quick and easy way to cut down on the number of calories people consume, and in particular on the number of sugary calories they consume, and that in turn will help avoid diabetes and other diseases to which obesity contributes.
What does this say about the argument that we should let people choose what they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else? Well, first, of course, if one person has diabetes that can hurt others—it can hurt their families, their employers, and in the long run it can hurt other citizens, who may suffer from their loss of productivity, or for whom the cost of health care may go up. So it isn’t entirely a “personal” choice, in the sense of one that has no repercussions for others. More important, though, is the fact that the people who are choosing the health-endangering supersized sodas aren’t really choosing what they want. That is, they are voluntarily choosing large sodas, but only because they don’t know about, or aren’t thinking clearly about, the consequences.
Now, drinking a lot of large sodas definitely doesn’t guarantee that you will get Type 2 diabetes, but it does raise that probability, and for most of us, I don’t think having an extra large soda is worth even that. Drinking a huge amount of soda isn’t really what we want, because while we like the taste of soda, what we want much more is to have long and healthy lives.
If we’d rather be healthy than drink large sodas, though, why do we drink large sodas? A number of factors come into play. For one thing, we tend to eat all of what is in front of us, unless we actively dislike it. Psychologists have discovered that lot of our eating is “mindless”—that is, if we’re given a smaller portion, we eat it all and are fine with that, but if we’re given the larger portion we eat all of that, too. We’re not finishing our plate or cup because of a strong positive desire, but just because it’s there. That’s why it’s unlikely that we’d follow a 16-ounce soda with a second trip to the counter to get another 16-ounce soda, even though we could—we don’t really want that much soda. We drink it anyway when we’ve got it, because after a certain point, we’re eating and drinking from inertia.
At the same time as we consume mindlessly, the good reasons we have not to consume often aren’t that clear to us. Psychologists have discovered that we all suffer from what they call cognitive biases: tendencies, in certain situations, to make mistakes that can hurt us. For example, we engage in what they call “wishful thinking:” that is, we believe that if we’re doing something, it can’t actually be that bad. Since we’re used to eating junk food and drinking a lot of soda, we just can’t believe that it can cause damage. We suffer from “time-discounting,” where we don’t see vividly how much we will care about our future when we get there—so we favor the present, as if the future won’t really happen. We do something called anchoring, where we base a generalization on a fact that isn’t really that relevant: so we say we ate junk food and soda in the past without getting diabetes, so it won’t happen in the future, even though (rationally) we know the cumulative effect of food habits that didn’t hurt us once can still hurt us in the long run.
These biases aren’t signs of stupidity. They are normal glitches in the ways normal people think, glitches whose source we don’t really understand, but which have been proven time and time again to exist. People who expect us, all on our own, to do everything we need to avoid getting diabetes, or everything we need to treat it once we’ve got it, are just unrealistic. That’s not how people’s minds work.
Given that, rules that prevent us from drinking very large sodas are actually helping us get what we ourselves want: a healthy life. When it comes to food choices, expecting super-human knowledge, and super-human self-restraint, isn’t respectful of individual choice; it’s downright cruel. We don’t leave people on their own when it comes to potentially dangerous medicines: we require prescriptions. Now it turns out that food can be dangerous, too, if we eat too much of certain things, and having a few laws about healthy eating is not only acceptable, it’s a really good idea.