While Michelle Obama focused on carrots, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg brandished a stick. It's what we deserve. Cry all you want about a nanny state, but as a city and a nation we've gorged and guzzled past the point where a gentle nudge toward roughage suffices. We need a weight watcher willing to mete out some stricter discipline.
The way last week played out, it was as if the first lady and the mayor had actually scripted a good-cop, bad-cop routine. She toured the friendliest of talk shows to cultivate an audience for her new vegetable-garden book (and maybe harvest a few re-election votes in the process). He dared to make enemies, announcing a coming ban on sugary soft drinks in certain measures and settings. It was a more provocative approach, but a fitting one, given how unfit so many Americans have become. With an obesity problem like ours, we can't just say grow. We must say no, at least to some things some of the time.
The prohibition Bloomberg wants to implement, if it survives the fury he has whipped up and gets approval (which is expected) from a city health panel, is on the sale of sugary soft drinks above 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters and other places where a person is buying an individual serving, not an amount to be shared.
It's in many senses an absurd and random gesture. A merchant could still peddle a 20-ounce milkshake with more calories than a Coke. A customer could still buy two 16-ounce Pepsis, using tandem vessels and two straws to do the work of one supersize abomination. There are many vendors unaffected by the proposed ban, and there's a wide world of caloric villains untouched. Man cannot balloon on Mountain Dew alone.
The proposed ban is also an act of government control and regulation that makes no small number of people squeamish. Should we not have the liberty to ingest what we elect to ingest, and to decide whether the pleasure is worth any ill effects? Are we not capable stewards of our own welfare?
In general, yes, but the government has taxed cigarettes to high heaven, as a means (successful) of steering us away from them, and made it illegal to partake of many recreational drugs. Like those substances, heavily sugared soft drinks are wholly unnecessary and are implicated in health problems that wind up affecting all of us, not just the individual suffering from them. Food ceased to be a frontier too far whenthe fraction of American adults who qualify as obese climbed above 1 in 3.
We're fat, folks. Seriously, dangerously fat. And you don't need statistics to tell you that; you just need to look around. All three people ahead of me in line in a food shop in Des Moines, Iowa, last month qualified as morbidly obese; they had 900 pounds — easy — among them.
One of every two people in line with me at a Coney Island concession stand last weekend was carrying at least 25 extra pounds. When this many people are this overweight, you have not only an epidemic. You have a new normal, a context in which each obese person is less likely to recognize and appreciate the magnitude of his or her health problem because it's entirely unexceptional.
"Our eyes have adjusted over time," said Thomas A. Farley, the city health commissioner, during a phone conversation on Thursday, when he and Bloomberg were out explaining and defending the proposed ban amid threats of lawsuits from restaurant-association lawyers and a hue and cry from the body politic unlike any I've heard in a while. The local news station NY1 was one nonstop vox populi of citizens baying that Bloomberg was a tyrant whose real motivation was to wield control over as much of our lives as possible.
Come on. He has targeted trans fats (how much are you really missing those?) and smoking in public places and, now, only those vessels for sugary soft drinks that aren't so much cups as kegs. Have you seen the ones that fast-food chains sometimes market as "values"? During a TV appearance, Farley displayed an example from KFC. It was gigantic enough for a small marine mammal to do laps in, and its only value is in speeding you toward a double bypass.
In a fascinating article by Claudia Dreifus in The New York Times recently, a mathematician with the National Institutes of Health said that after crunching various numbers, he had concluded that the single best explanation for the obesity epidemic was the hyper-efficient overproduction of food, which has made it cheaper and encouraged its sale and consumption in portions much heftier than those of yesteryear. The Double Whopper is the new normal, and so is the 32-ounce Sprite.
Bloomberg and Farley aren't taking anything away from us, not really. They're just pushing back against the new normal. They're trying to reroute our expectations and tweak our habits. "The portions that people are served have a big influence on what they consume," Farley told me. "It doesn't seem logical, but that's the observation." If given a larger measure or enticed to purchase it, many people will upsize their intake without quite recognizing it.
The proposed ban is a step too incremental and contained to be considered a serious challenge to personal freedoms. In fact its greatest potential flaw is its possible futility. And any whiff it gives off of overzealous government intervention must be seen in the context of the billions upon billions of advertising and marketing dollars spent annually by the fast-food industry on exhorting us to pig out.
The proposed ban must also be seen in the context of all the widely debated initiatives that have been rejected, at least so far: steep taxes on sugary soft drinks; prohibitions on the use of food stamps for such beverages and for other nutritionally pointless junk. And the ban isn't being presented as a harsh, mean substitute for the sort of public education the first lady is engaged in. That education should and will continue. But it has been going on for a while now, and the obesity rate nationally hasn't dropped.
Is Bloomberg putting us on a slippery slope? Maybe. But we have a long way to slide before there's a cause for alarm commensurate with the urgency of the problem he's trying to whittle away at. And the government routinely meddles in the markets and our lives when private behavior has severe public consequences. We reached that larded intersection scores of Big Gulps and dozens of pounds ago.
Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist who chronicled his battle with weight in the book, "Born Round."
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