Well before it was approved by the city's Board of Health on Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s infamous soda ban proposal hung heavily over New Yorkers this summer. Come March of next year, large sodas and sugary drinks over 16 ounces will no longer be sold at restaurants, street carts, and concession stands. But for those who worry the end of Big Gulps is the beginning of big government — fear not.
While the ban’s approval could be cause for panic — one New York Magazine headline shrieked “You Have Six Months to Suck Down Giant Sodas, Starting Now” — for most of us, it’s old news. Bloomberg has long since established a precedent of sweeping public health proposals: requiring calorie counts on menus, banning trans fats, limiting salt intake, discouraging smoking, and even urging new mothers to breastfeed. As with each of these, it came as no surprise when the Bloomberg-appointed members of the Board of Health passed the latest ban.
Public health in New York, and the soda saga in particular, are much as they ever were even after the board's definitive 8-0 vote — except New Yorkers have had a change of heart. After a 22% decline in public support this summer, now 6 in 10 city dwellers oppose the ban.
Perhaps these newfound detractors are just better informed. Maybe they’ve noticed that the fraction of obese adults in America has nearly doubled in three decades. Possibly they’re abashed to find themselves in the most obese country of any in the developed world, and disturbed to live in a city losing 5,800 adults every year to obesity-related illness.
If so, they surely know a ban on select sugary drinks — applying only to food service establishments regulated by the city (which doesn’t include 7-11), and only for drinks less than half milk (which spares Starbucks Frappuccinos and Dunkin Donuts Coolattas in all their sweet turbidity) — won’t be enough.
But as it happens, they fear just the opposite: that it’s too much.
Survey respondents once evenly split about whether or not Bloomberg was instituting “nanny government” are now heavily reproaching his administration for “infringement of civil liberties,” “big overreach,” and “the nanny state going off the wall.”
This ideological fissure has widened, no doubt, in the wake of a busy “Impact Tour,” the outreach effort by New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a coalition defending the soda industry. Some 2,000 members canvassed New York neighborhoods this past summer with an air of foreboding: “According to the mayor, New Yorkers need help deciding what size beverage is appropriate. If this now, what’s next?”
Not far in the background, a smattering of insinuating ads winked, “If we let him get away with this, where will it end?”
Even for an issue no one is disputing — that Americans are dangerously fat — progressives have evidently failed yet again to frame their policy measures sensibly.
“It is evident that some people just aren’t responsible enough to feed themselves,” writes Casey Neistat in the New York Times. “A nanny is just what New York City, and the rest of America, needs.”
Maybe so, but the ban is not meant to challenge the credibility of individual choice, as the numerous loopholes attest. (You can still buy two 8-ounce sodas.) Bloomberg’s measure succeeds, instead, if it exposes a self-perpetuating culture of obesity that has managed to wriggle free of public discourse.
In a country where $168 billion is spent annually to treat various ailments tied to obesity—including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers—the ban offers a modicum of countermeasure at most. And even still, a judge could block the board’s approval, in effect rubbing out any lasting marks on obesity in New York. As for Bloomberg’s larger aim to stir discussion on the issue, that too has puttered out, splintering into ideological debates about government intervention.
In the end, this crisis in public health has been silenced in much the same way as others, like that antiquated one about finance. Discussing financial regulation in the heat of her senatorial campaign, the brazen champion of the left Elizabeth Warren appeared to lament our collective equivocation: “So now here we are, we’re in this election of 2012, and it’s right there on the table: What is the role of government?”
In New York, if just for a moment, we almost saw beyond it.