The New York City Health Department’s newly revealed plan to propose a ban on the sale of most sugar-sweetened drinks 16 ounces or larger in restaurants, fast-food venues, delis, movie theaters and sports arenas is already heating up the ongoing controversy over whether government interventions should be used to try to address the nation’s obesity crisis and other health issues -- and whether such interventions are effective or merely intrusive.
The sweetened-beverages ban, advocated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, will be proposed as an amendment to the Health Code at a June 12 meeting of the Board of Health. Given that the health board’s members are appointed by the mayor and that the health commissioner is its chairman, the likelihood of approval is considered high.
The ban would apply to beverages that are sweetened with sugar or other caloric sweeteners that contain more than 25 calories per 8-ounce serving, and contain less than 51% milk or milk substitute by volume. That lets out diet sodas and most water products. Fruit juices and alcoholic beverages are exempted, as are all beverages sold in grocery and convenience stores. In QSRs where beverages are self-serve, operators would have to provide cups 16 ounces or smaller, even when customers order diet drinks; however, free refills would be allowed.
Farley told The New York Times that more than half of the city's adults are obese or overweight, and that he blames sweetened drinks for more than half of the increase in the city's obesity rates over the past 30 years. He said that more than a third of New Yorkers consume one or more sugary drinks per day, and that obesity rates are higher in neighborhoods where soda consumption is higher.
Obesity is a nationwide problem, and New York City "is not about wringing your hands; it's about doing something," Mayor Bloomberg told the Times.
Stefan Friedman, a spokesperson for the New York City arm of the national American Beverage Association (ABA), labeled the proposal another example of the city health department's "unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks." He asserted that "it's time for serious health professionals to move on and seek solutions that are going to actually curb obesity. These zealous proposals just distract from the hard work that needs to be done on this front." Friedman’s remarks echo ABA national’s stance that anti-soft drink measures by NYC and other governmental bodies unfairly single out one product from an array of foods and beverages, all of which “contribute equally” to the “very complex issue” of obesity.
Coca-Cola Co. issued a statement saying: “The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes. We are transparent with our consumers. They can see exactly how many calories are in every beverage we serve. We have prominently placed calorie counts on the front of our bottles and cans in New York City, and restaurants already post the calorie content of all their offerings and portion sizes -- including soft drinks. New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase. We hope New Yorkers loudly voice their disapproval about this arbitrary mandate.”
Initiatives: Divisive History
Bloomberg has been both criticized and praised for his aggressive advocacy of health-related initiatives, which some consider “nanny-state” encroachments into individuals’ personal decisions. NYC’s initiatives have included implementation of posting calorie counts in restaurants, banning restaurants from cooking with oils containing trans fats, and banning smoking in all public spaces (including parks). NYC also spearheaded local and national salt reduction initiatives, and the city has said it has a plan to reduce alcohol retail outlet density and exposure to alcohol advertising in retail and public settings.
Restaurant calorie posting has since been implemented on a federal level, and some of NYC’s other initiatives have also been emulated by other cities. But Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to restrict the use of food stamps for buying soda was rejected by federal officials. And even New York state residents remain divided on government’s role in health decisions: A Quinnipiac University poll conducted just this month found 45% of New York voters in favor of government measures to discourage unhealthy eating/drinking habits, and 48% saying the government should not get involved.
The ABA and ABA members Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo recently launched ads in NYC’s subway system seeking to counter the city’s own, three-year-long subway ad campaign, which warns New Yorkers that consuming sugary, high-calorie beverages can “pour on the pounds” and lead to diabetes and heart disease.
The beverage industry’s subway ads, which stress that America’s beverage makers are offering “more choices, smaller portions and fewer calories,” are part of a major ABA-run lobbying and marketing initiative to counter a growing number of efforts in states and municipalities to reduce consumption of sugary beverages. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) estimates that PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and ABA have spent as much as $70 million on ads and lobbying since 2009.
ABA launched a nationwide PR campaign in February, and has a site, Let’s Clear It Up, devoted to refuting what it terms “myths,” which cites research/data countering research/data from various health organizations and academic studies about the links between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity.
Numerous U.S. school districts have banned the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in schools, and some cities (including Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cleveland) have banned their sale in public buildings.
Taxing of sugary drinks has also become an ongoing battleground; indeed, current stats on the success/failure rates of such efforts seem somewhat tough to pin down. In February, a resolution by a Chicago alderman that sought to have the city council investigate implementing taxes on sugared soft drinks and energy drinks stated that 33 states had a tax on such beverages, and that six also impose an excise tax on them. In March, however, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that efforts to enact soft-drink taxes have foundered in 30 states (some of these were efforts to increase rates of existing soft-drink taxes).
As of January 1, 2011, StateHealthFacts.org reported that 30 states had taxes specifically on soft drinks, and 21 had taxes specifically on chips and pretzels (whether or not they also had general food taxes). While President Obama’s 2009 recommendation that a federal tax on sugary drinks be explored to help pay for health-care reform fizzled, it emboldened state lawmakers –- in search of ways to increase revenues as well as (according to health organizations) potentially reduce obesity and associated health-care costs -- to propose state-level taxes.
Businessweek points out that defeat of such taxing measures (including in New York state, despite Bloomberg’s advocacy) has in no small part been due to the beverage industry’s lobbying. ABA’s Let’s Clear It Up site, on the other hand, cites a March 2012 Harris Interactive/Health Day poll finding that 37% of Americans “strongly oppose” taxing sugar-sweetened soft drinks, and another 25% “oppose” it.
What’s clear is that this battle isn’t going to subside anytime soon.
On June 7-8, CSPI is holding its first “Sugary Drinks Summit” in Washington, D.C. The event’s agenda shows speakers including U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., ranking Democratic member on the Labor, Health, Human Services, and Education Subcommittee; as well as Philadelphia mayor Michael A. Nutter; state and city health officials; academic and health organization officials; and an unidentified “former high-level soft-drink executive.”