Editorial: Bull Moose mayor takes Big Gulp of faith

By Staff Editorial

From buildings to banks to apples, in New York City, everything’s big. Well, except for… From buildings to banks to apples, in New York City, everything’s big. Well, except for people’s bodies and soft drinks — at least that’s the vision of New York’s self-anointed health crusader-in-chief, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The Bloomberg administration’s plan to rid its vendors of select greater-than-16-ounce beverages squarely deserves the ridicule it’s receiving from the logic-minded far and wide, but amid the commentary, mayors of America shouldn’t discount the courage that such a bold move on behalf of public health reveals. So Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, laugh all you want at your northeastern counterpart. We just hope you’ll have the same zeal — and hopefully more brain cells — when the time comes to defend your obese Pittsburgh population.

Inspired by decades of research tying obesity to sugar intake, Bloomberg announced his intention last week to limit the size of sweetened beverages (excluding calorie-heavy beer and milk) at New York restaurants and other public venues (excluding grocery stores). After March 2013, restaurants — such as the Carnegie Deli or McDonald’s chain restaurants — that receive letter grades from the Health Department and choose to stock cups that hold more than 16 ounces will be slapped with a $200 fine.

If indeed the hope behind the plan is to produce observable reductions in sugar consumption (and the New York obesity rate), Bloomberg should prepare for disappointment. No, it’s not because a slew of illegal, Prohibition-style “sweet-easies” will suddenly crop up to fill the void left by Big Gulps. While that would make a better story, the real reason is more logical: If people desire 32 ounces of carbonated sugar water when the cups only hold 16 ounces, what’s stopping them from simply buying two drinks, getting free refills at the restaurant or loading their shopping carts with giant bottles at ban-unaffected supermarkets? Answer: Not much.

However, it’s certainly possible that the 16-ounce rule might make some kind of dent in soda consumption among those who frequently indulge in the big drinks. That’s because under Bloomberg, New Yorkers will have to be more motivated to swallow just as much soda than they were before; buying two drinks and getting refills could cost more in terms of both time and money. That might be true, but given that the regularity of soda intake seems just as big an issue (if not bigger) as the size of intake, Bloomberg’s “motivation barrier” doesn’t seem high enough to produce a meaningful, city-wide health effect.

But it can sure count on producing a lot of angry, liberty-touting residents. Normally, we would hesitate before sympathizing with such residents, but it must be said that limiting the presence of tobacco (Bloomberg banned bar-room smoking in 2002) doesn’t cross the same line that limiting a nutritionally relevant substance, such as sugar, does. At some point on the list of things we put in our mouths, unregulated, individual choice should kick in (assuming those things aren’t tainted, thanks to the watchful eye of the FDA).

Putting aside the questions of freedom and practicality, Bloomberg’s got balls. Maybe they’re made of wadded-up $100 bills — he’s a billionaire — but, nonetheless, he uses them for the forces of societal good, so he believes. He may not quite have the Teddy Roosevelt level of progressive ferocity and quixotism, but perhaps leaders like Bloomberg will help bring about the true magic bullet for the epidemic of unhealthy intake behaviors: tidal wave changes in social norms. Look, we did it for seatbelts.