Weighing in on NYC’s proposed soda limits – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Last week I had the opportunity to testify before the New York City Board of Health in support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal amend the health law in New York City to limit sugary drinks sold by restaurants and movie theaters – not grocery or convenience stores – in New York City to 16-oz. servings.

That means thousands of restaurants across the city will need to reduce serving sizes for sugary drinks or face a $200 fine. Why this proposal from the Mayor? Because the obesity rates in New York – like the rest of America – are soaring (see NCL testimony) and calorie-laden drinks are ubiquitous and heavily marketed. They include typical soft drinks like Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Sprite, and more recently bottled Ice Teas and lemonade, sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade, and so called “energy” drinks like Red Bull, Monster, and 5 Hour Energy filled with caffeine and sugar. These beverages are a major factor in the rising caloric intake of so many Americans and in the meteoric rise in Type 2 Diabetes (especially among children and teens) and heart disease.

NCL supports the Mayor’s proposal because we join with our public health colleagues and medical specialists in diabetes, heart, kidney and oral disease in blowing the whistle on the marketing of sweetened drinks to American consumers, especially the young. We’ve supported the Mayor in other health issues, like requiring that trans fat be listed on labels, posting calories on restaurant menus throughout NYC as of several years ago (and, having been in NYC this week, the info is very useful in steering calorie conscious consumers to healthier options).

Exempted under the Bloomberg amendment would be sugar-free drinks, beverages containing milk products (like Starbucks drinks for example), and the infamous “Big Gulp” drinks sold by 7-11 stores because they are not restaurants.

The New York Health Department in Long Island City hosted, and many of the Commissioners – all appointed by Mayor Bloomberg – were in attendance during the long afternoon hearing. I was surprised to see such a large turnout of interested parties signed up to testify. I especially appreciated and learned from the comments of so many prominent and outspoken medical academics and leaders of disease groups, like the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. There were ethnic group representatives from the Asian, Hispanic and Black communities who talked about the effects of obesity plaguing their communities. There were also prominent academics, like the head of dentistry at a local medical facility who noted that that, despite the fluoridation of NYC water, youngsters were coming in with unprecedented tooth decay from sugary drinks.

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal has already had an impact. (Our statement described it as bold, but noted that the proposal calls for really what is a modest limitation on the size of sweet drinks sold in NYC restaurants and movie theaters – allowing establishments to serve 16 oz of 14 teaspoons of liquid sugar is not a ban!)

The New Yorker magazine noted that the purveyors of a 64-ounce bucket drink – the notorious KFC – were in the doldrums because the Mayor’s proposal was giving these sugary drinks a “bad name.” Yay! That is exactly what should happen. And there is a buzz about this proposal. The UK, whose citizens never had to fight obesity before, is now considering a similar ban. Tragically, over the last few decades, American companies have exported our junk food abroad – with all its salt, sugar, and fat—and this has had a big impact on obesity rates worldwide.

I listened to opponents and came away thinking their arguments were weak. They ranged from claiming the proposal inhibits so-called consumer choice to buy supersize, unhealthy liquid calories, to the argument that adults can make their own decisions about what they eat, to saying the proposal will make costs prohibitive for struggling small business, killing 8,000 jobs.

This last argument made no sense to me. There are hundreds of drinks that are exempted – including all diet drinks, all bottled water, any drink containing a milk product. And restaurants can still serve sugary drinks, but just in lesser quantities. So I don’t really see the argument that this will kill jobs.

Mayor Bloomberg deserves plaudits for his proposal. It is a certainty that other jurisdictions will adopt similar measures, for extreme circumstances call for bold measures. This one meets the test.