On Soda Ban, What would Mary Poppins do?

On Soda Ban, What would Mary Poppins do?

On May 30, news broke that NY Mayor Bloomberg planned to amend the city’s health code to prohibit a range of food service establishments from selling many sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 oz. Quicker than you can say “nanny state”, the soda industry fought back with a full page, full color ad in the NY Times depicting Bloomberg as a nanny, and claiming “You only thought you lived in the land of the free!” From the furor the beverage industry is whipping up, one might think the Mayor had proposed banning soft drinks – as in, making it illegal for vendors to sell, or customers to consume, soft drinks – when in reality all that has been proposed is a limit on the maximum serving size to accompany a single meal.

Have we really gotten to the point where a 16-oz limit on portion size (twice the average portion size of sodas in fast food restaurants just 20 years ago) is construed as a “ban”? The proposal does not limit who can sell soft drinks, where or when they can be sold, or to whom they can be sold;
it would in no way hamper the longstanding goal of the Coca Cola Company to put Coca Cola "within an arm's reach of desire".

What Bloomberg has proposed is not a ban by any stretch of the imagination; he has merely set a maximum portion size. Those wishing to consume more than 16 oz of soda may still purchase additional portions, or avail themselves of free refills at fast food outlets offering such inducements to overeat.
Editorials from places which have already looked at regulating the sale of soda, such as Philadelphia, where a soda tax has twice been proposed, were supportive; the Philadelphia Inquirer praised the proposal, and said

Without question, other mayors should be watching how it goes with New York’s latest public-health experiment, and consider following suit if Bloomberg’s strategy proves to be effective in reducing obesity rates.

The LA Times quotes the president of the California Endowment as saying,

“We need to move Mayor Bloomberg’s effort beyond the five boroughs to all 50 states. Junk drinks are a leading cause of an obesity and excess weight crisis that affects nearly one of every three kids in the United States and half of all kids in poor, rural areas.”

Reasonable size portions in all 50 states? That would be the soda industry’s worst nightmare. The industry must believe that the Bloomberg measure would be effective, and would result in New Yorkers consuming less soda; otherwise why would they oppose it so vigorously? If the result would only be, as some food industry lawyers are claiming, that people will just help themselves to endless refills in fast food joints, or buy two sodas instead of one at food carts, then why bother to oppose the regulation at all?

For those who suggest that a soda tax or limit on drink sizes would disproportionately affect the poor, let’s also acknowledge that obesity and related disorders like diabetes, heart disease and asthma also disproportionately affect the poor, who have less access to high quality healthcare, less places to exercise, and more in your face fast food outlets in their neighborhoods than wealthier folks.

Some say the decision to drink a gallon of soda with a meal is a personal choice and that an adult’s weight is their own personal business and doesn’t affect anyone else. Yet as obesity increases, manufacturers of everything from automobiles to children’s furniture are being forced to ‘upsize’ their products, and pass the costs along to consumers, including public schools needing to buy larger seats and desks for their students.

In the field of healthcare, the need for larger sizes of everything from wheelchairs, patient beds and mattresses to larger MRI imaging systems and ambulances makes providing care for obese patients more expensive.

A growing body of physicians believe that allowing insurance companies to charge their obese patients higher premiums is fundamentally unfair, yet someone has to pay those higher costs – either the patients themselves, or everyone else using the healthcare system.

Then there is the treatment of obesity itself; according to the Texas Medical Association, “Obesity drives up health insurance cost…Average employment-based health insurance premiums in Texas increased 29.3 percent overall from 2001 to 2004.”

That’s not to say obese patients are not entitled to the same dignity and respect that lower weight patients take for granted; if larger beds or stronger ambulances and rescue equipment are required, we, as a society, need to support those changes regardless of whether it drives our own costs higher. But let’s not pretend that an adult’s obesity has no impact on others, when it clearly does.

As with any other proposed legislation that would impact, even in an incremental way, Americans’ freedom to do things that are bad for them, like smoke, ride motorcycles without a helmet, or eat obscene portion sizes of junk food, the knee-jerk response from the soda industry was to proclaim this yet another example of a “nanny state.” But is it really? What would the world’s most famous nanny, Mary Poppins, heroine of British author P.L. Travers’ eponymous children’s classic, do to change an unwanted behavior?

The first rule of nannydom is that the perpetrator must be made to experience some kind of unpleasant consequence of their actions – a child who hits might be sent to sit on the stairs for a “time out” far away from parents and playmates. Or, if one has the abilities of Mary Poppins, there might be a more magical consequence. As one reviewer of the original Mary Poppins wrote on Amazon.com

There were consequences to their actions. Have a tantrum, and you just might wind up on the wrong end of an antique plate--trapped inside with no way out. Be rude to adults and other children, and your nice little world will change in ways you don't want to know about.

Much as soda lovers might resent having to walk all the way to the free refill station at their favorite fast food joint to get yet another 16oz of soda, that hardly compares to being trapped inside an antique plate, or even exiled to sit on the stairs and contemplate one’s bad behavior.

Critics can’t have it both ways. They can’t cry “nanny state” and at the same time complain that the proposal will not be effective because people will still find ways around it. A true nanny like Mary Poppins would find a way to prevent the consumption of too much sugar water; this proposal does not do that, it just puts a small speed bump on the superhighway to obesity by requiring the consumer to pay a little more, or walk a little farther, to get more soda.

The Bloomberg proposal is not a symptom of a “nanny state”, nor is it a “ban”; it is a common sense and long needed response to a food and beverage climate constantly prodding consumer to eat and drink more than is healthy for them.

McDonald’s tweeted a response to the Bloomberg announcement stating “We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them.” Interesting response from a company that spends about $2 billion a year on advertising; perhaps what they meant was, “We trust our advertising budget, which is larger than the GNP of a small nation, to make sure that our customers make the choices that are best for us.”

You’ve got to wonder, though, why more industries with questionable business practices haven’t thought of using the McDonald’s response.

Get screwed by a subprime adjustable-rate home mortgage? Your bank trusted you to make the choice that was best for you. Pay through the nose for a degree from a for-profit college believing it would make you more employable, only to find that no such jobs exist in your field? Your technical college trusted you to make the choice that was best for you.

See how that works? We provide you with a lot of misleading information on which to make your decision, and then when it all goes wrong, we can blame you for making the wrong choice. As the NY Times industry-sponsored ad said, “You only thought you lived in the land of the free.”

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.