For speaking a hard truth about pop and other sugar-drenched drinks -- there's no need to guzzle them by the near-bucketful -- New York City's feisty billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg has predictably been accused of turning "nanny-state" fears into reality.
But it's a good bet that in years ahead, Bloomberg will not be remembered as the Big Gulp-Busybody-In-Chief, but instead as one of the first high-profile public officials to sound the alarm about these drinks' significant health risk.
On Sept. 13, at Bloomberg's urging, New York City's Board of Health approved what's believed to be a first-of-its-kind ban on the sale of supersized sugary beverages. In six months, if there's no lawsuit filed to block it, containers of Coke, Pepsi and sugar-laden flavored drinks larger than 16 ounces will be outlawed at restaurants, movie theaters, food carts and sports arenas. Business violators are subject to a $200 fine.
The ban has spurred national headlines and raised the ire of the beverage industry and various activists, who took out a full-page ad this summer in the New York Times depicting a frumpily dressed Bloomberg as Mrs. Doubtfire -- the nanny character in an old Robin Williams movie. But for all the outrage, the ban isn't likely to prevent pop-a-holics from getting their daily fix.
It doesn't stop someone from buying two 16-ounce cups or bottles of soda. Nor does it apply to convenience stores or grocery stores. And, of course, New Yorkers are free to drink however much they want at home.
At worst, the new soda ban will inconvenience some hard-core pop drinkers, so it's a hard sell that this is a sinister assault on liberty or a terrible deprivation, as critics contend. Civilization also didn't come to a screeching halt when New York put in place another Bloomberg-inspired health ban on trans fats a few years ago, despite the outcry over it.
At the same time, the loopholes in the pop ban raise valid questions about whether this public measure will do what it's intended to do -- help reduce obesity. That should give pause to other cities that may consider following New York's lead. (Minneapolis, for example, weighed but didn't approve a ban on trans fats.)
That public policy is needed to stop obesity's spread is unquestionable. Two respected health organizations recently released a landmark report on the problem. It forecast a steady increase in American adult obesity rates by 2030, with 13 states predicted to see rates top 60 percent. The public, which pays private health insurance premiums and foots the bill for Medicare and other government-run health programs, has a huge stake in slowing obesity's shared and substantial health costs.
Bloomberg's limited ban won't likely deter many soda drinkers. Its value instead lies in its leading-edge spotlighting of the link between pop consumption and obesity. The scientific underpinning for this is maturing, with three groundbreaking studies in the New England Journal of Medicine last week strengthening the argument that soda is a contributor to the obesity epidemic.
Most people don't read the New England Journal, however. In kicking off a debate over the ban, Bloomberg has pushed the information about pop's potential risks into pop culture, giving consumers the information they need to make healthier choices.
Most people would never dream of eating 17 teaspoons of sugar in one sitting -- yet those who gulp 20 ounces of regular soda consume the equivalent. Bloomberg is one of the first publicly to ask why we're OK with that. He shouldn't be the last.