25 Jul 2012

Gulp: New York’s fizzy drinks ban gets debate fizzing

Mayor Bloomberg says it’s a vital part of the battle against obsesity: but critics say his plan to ban super-sized servings of fizzy drinks is an attack on their human rights.

Fizzy drink cans (getty)

Jamie Oliver supports it – so too, the film producer Spike Lee. But hundreds of people turned out last night in New York to protest against the proposal to limit servings of fizzy drinks to 16 ounce cups at most, that’s about one and a half times the size of a normal can of drink.

The plan, pioneered by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is expected to come into force in September, at restaurants, cinemas, delis, and vending carts across the city – but that hasn’t silenced its opponents.

There is no doubt that obesity is a major problem in New York. Some sixty percent of adults, and forty percent of children are classed as overweight or obese, so banning massive vats of fizzy drinks looks like a no-brainer.

Supporters of the ban, like Kelly Brownell, from Yale University’s center for food policy and obesity, told a public hearing on Tuesday that sugary sodas have no nutritional value.

Obesity is going to start killing more people in this country than smoking. Mayor Michael Bloomberg

“If people are served larger portions”, he said, “they generally consume more. This, to me, is a bold and constructive policy completely supported by scientific evidence.” Or, as the giant billboard ads put up by city authorities put it, “Are you pouring on the pounds?”

So why the fuss? It’s not like the mayor is trying to ban fizzy drinks altogether. But this is being portrayed as a fundamental attack on freedom. How very un-American.

Unsurprisingly, drinks giants like Pepsi and Coca Cola are leading the charge – describing the ban as an insult to New Yorkers. The American Beverage Association is funding the main opposition group, New Yorkers for Beverage Choice.

According to their radio ads: “This is New York City. No-one tells us what neighbourhood to live in or what team to root for. So are we going to let our mayor tell us what size beverage to buy?” Put that in your gigantic cup and slurp it.

Big portions, big business

The corporate giants have a great deal at stake: they spend around two billion dollars every year marketing their drinks, mostly to teenagers. And total sales of soft drinks have been sliding for the last seven years. Sales of Coca-Cola have slipped one percent, while Pepsi sales are down five percent since last year, according to Beverage Digest.

But small businesses are also worried that they’ll be unfairly hit by the ban – at a time when many are already struggling to survive. The New York restaurant association has warned that restaurant and cafe owners will end up having to put up prices, or even lay off workers to compensate from the predicted fall in sales.

Cash-strapped families, they say, often share a large drink between them – and will now be forced to spend more, buying two smaller ones instead. City councillor Daniel Halloran condemned the measure as “absolutely ridiculous, unenforceable and hypocritical.”

Jim Morgan, chief executive of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, and presumably no friend of the calorie counter told National Restaurant News: “The scarier part is the interference with personal choice and business. We need to be careful about that.”

But does anyone seriously need a 54 ounce soda? Yes, that’s the biggest size you can buy at a Regal movie theatre – that’s more than one and a half litres, in a single cup, and more than five hundred calories.

“There are real world consequences”, says Bloomberg. “Obesity is going to start killing more people in this country than smoking.”

Fighting obesity

The mayor has already outlawed smoking in restaurants, bars and public places, junked unhealthy trans-fats, and forced fast food chains to print calorie counts on their menus.

Along with the giant drinks ban, a new inititative is being piloted in the Bronx to encourage local people to buy fruit and vegetables instead of junk food. At eighty participating stores, healthy snacks will replace the racks of sweets and crisps at the checkout, while water and low calorie drinks will be placed at eye-level in coolers and fridges.

Experts say the average American drinks more than forty gallons of sugary drinks a year. New York could be the first city to limit serving sizes in the name of health and if Mr Bloomberg’s plan goes through, like the smoking ban, other cities could follow suit.

That, say opponents, is what worries them: could the size of their pizzas, their popcorn, their steaks be next? This is New York!

But to the mayor and his supporters, the very health of the city, the nation, is at stake. According to one doctor, giant servings of drinks are “metabolically toxic”: more reasonable sized cups, he argued, was “obvious”.

The battle over super-sized drinks has gone super-charged: junk food draped in the trappings of free choice. Live free or die, indeed.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News