Bloomberg's Soda Ban Not The Solution For Obesity Epidemic
In January 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35.7% of Americans—over one third—are obese. With obesity threatening to become the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and with obesity-related medical problems costing an estimated $150 billion a year, federal, state and local governments need to take serious action to get this epidemic under control.
But at what point do these legislative bodies overstep their boundaries? On Thursday, the New York City Board of Health—with unanimous approval by those who voted—passed Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's controversial ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, street carts and movie theaters.
Bloomberg calls it “the single biggest step any city, I think, has ever taken to curb obesity.” But this step was not necessarily one in the right direction. Yes, Bloomberg's move sends a message to the New York and American public that obesity is a big problem and that we want to stop it; however, he has undermined that very message by suggesting the only way to fight obesity is through government micromanagement of people's eating habits.
Democratic governments aren't supposed to regulate people's personal choices. Rather, they should influence people's choices by making the best decisions for the most people through regulation of the spheres over which they do have control: law enforcement, education, taxation, economic practice, etc. Ignoring this stipulation can lead to considerable popular resistance, as it has in the battle over marijuana legalization. Many Americans are incensed that they cannot participate in an activity considered enjoyable, spiritual and even therapeutic in the privacy of their own homes, and have responded both by protesting and by blatantly disregarding the law.
When Bloomberg's soda ban takes effect in March, there's nothing stopping people from defiantly drinking more soda than ever before—either by purchasing multiple 16 oz. drink containers, or by taking their business to places unaffected by the measure, like convenience stores. According to a recent New York Times public opinion poll, 60 percent of New Yorkers disapprove of the ban, meaning the city has just alienated the majority of its population on an issue for which they desperately need support—obesity.
Ultimately, Bloomberg's ban represents the wrong kind of solution for the obesity epidemic, and a particularly irksome one considering more appropriate solutions abound. For one thing, the federal government spends gross amounts of taxpayer dollars subsidizing ingredients that go into junk food, one of the many addressable reasons obesity is more common among low-income families.
A study conducted by the California Public Interest Research Group found that between 1995 and 2011, $18.2 billion in tax dollars went to subsidizing four major junk food additives: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils. In the same time period, just $637 million went to subsidizing apples, one of the few fresh fruits and vegetables that has a federal subsidy at all. That means that for every 21 Twinkies, the federal government only subsidizes one half of an apple. Small wonder it is becoming cheaper—at least in the short term—to follow a junk-food diet.
Banning large sodas isn't going to accomplish anything in light of a political-agricultural complex that so readily encourages the production of unhealthy food. Until the federal government wakes up and realizes that its actions are slowly killing its citizens, state and local governments would do better lobbying for that wake-up call to happen sooner, and sticking to the spheres in which they are entitled to make obesity-related changes.
For example, states can adjust public school curricula to include a required nutritional health component. They can change standards for public school cafeterias and challenge the current standard that counts two tablespoons of pizza sauce as a vegetable. They can provide grants to non-profit initiatives that promote healthy eating, and design food stamp regulations that favor the purchase of produce and whole grains.
Local governments, like the city of New York, also have a role to play—and not by micromanaging soda purchases. They can spearhead nutritional propaganda campaigns and provide incentives for healthy grocery stores to open up in low-income neighborhoods. They can fund sports and outdoor activities instead of recreational pursuits that don't involve exercise.
These solutions address the root problems of obesity in the United States: ignorance, limited activity, poor access to healthy food and cheap, mass-produced junk. While America's perception of portion size is dangerously askew, a mere restriction on soda is not enough to give people the attitude adjustment necessary to pursue a healthy lifestyle—especially when it appears to be as dictatorial as the soda ban is perceived to be.
Mayor Bloomberg's heart is in the right place: he wants to keep the hundreds of millions of Americans battling obesity from losing that battle and from dooming the next generation to face the same problems. But this won't happen if federal, state and local governments don't fight obesity in the most efficient and most practical way possible. Soda consumption is one tiny factor of the obesity epidemic; the size of sodas is an even tinier problem. Solutions to the epidemic need to be comprehensive, addressing all the factors of the obesity epidemic—particularly those to which the government contributes.
Reach Columnist Francesca Bessey here.