Bloomberg vs. Soda: My Piece in The Guardian

[The following piece originally appeared on the website of The Guardian.]

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made headlines by announcing his administration’s plan to ban the sale of sugary drinks offered in containers larger than 16 ounces. The proposed “large soda” ban would affect food service establishments like restaurants, movie theaters and street vendors, but would not affect grocery or convenience stores. (Diet sodas, fruit juices, milk-based drinks and alcoholic beverages would be exempted.)

The move, which would take effect next March, falls under the purview of the city’s health department. It therefore seems unlikely to require any outside approval beyond its likely passage by the city’s Board of Health.

As a writer who blogs daily about kids and food, I’m deeply immersed in the issue of childhood obesity and its related ills. I’ve reported on children needing weight-related knee replacements and new research indicating that diabetes, which is on the rise among teens, may be a much more pernicious illness in pediatric patients than in adults. I also know that excess sugar consumption harms the health of all children, even those who are not overweight. So you might assume I’d welcome Bloomberg’s large-sized soda ban with great enthusiasm.

Instead, I feel ambivalent about it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of the soda industry (one that rightly has been compared to Big Tobacco) and while some commentators are dubious, I accept the proposition that the consumption of sugary beverages, particularly soda, has been a major driver of our current obesity and health crisis. I support the idea of a soda tax; I even approved of a more controversial proposal (also Bloomberg’s), which would have exempted soda purchases from the food stamps program.

I stand behind any measures to curb the advertising of soda to children, including the intrusion of beverage companies into schools through bus advertising, vending machines and support of athletic programs. I’d even be OK with sticking a warning label on non-nutritive sugary beverages. In short, I have absolutely no problem with public policies that encourage health-promoting behavior and disincentives which lead people to avoid harmful behavior.

But forbidding people outright to buy the size of soda they desire strikes me as quite paternalistic and intrusive and – if my Twitter feed is any gauge of public sentiment – likely to fuel resentment. And while it’s true that Bloomberg’s other, similarly coercive health measure – the banning of smoking in restaurants – was controversial when announced but is now widely accepted, one key difference is that smoking in restaurants not only adversely affects the smoker, but also the non-smokers around him. With soda, though, there is no immediate harm to bystanders that might otherwise justify the proposal in the minds of many New Yorkers.

There may also be problems implementing the ban. First, one clear flaw is that at fast food establishments and other venues where free refills are the norm, nothing in the proposal would prevent customers from bypassing the soda limit by simply refilling their 16-ounce cup. Similarly, convenience stores like 7-Eleven (which are currently expanding in New York City) might be exempt from the ban, ironically preserving the most iconic super-sized sugary drink of them all: the Big Gulp.

Second, there’s the possibility that the ban will actually create the perverse economic result of normal soda drinkers subsidizing the excess soda-drinking of others in establishments offering free refills. And if determined soda-buyers choose to buy multiple smaller containers and/or vendors raise soda prices, the plan could conceivably function as a back-door soda tax – but one that lines the pockets of soda purveyors, instead of providing revenue to the government (which may use the funds to defray obesity-related healthcare costs).

Third, such a ban is likely to disproportionately affect poorer New Yorkers. This might seem like an odd concern from someone who supported the food stamp soda ban, but I see a categorical difference between the use of government-issued supplemental food benefits for an entirely non-nutritive beverage, versus spending one’s own money on it. In that regard, it’s notable that a 24-ounce McDonald’s Coke (with 81g of sugar) would be banned, but the much pricier 24-ounce Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappucino (with 87g of sugar) would likely not, due to its milk content.

Finally, while no fault of Bloomberg’s (who is necessarily limited to taking action only within his city), nothing in his proposal gets at one of the roots of Americans’ over-consumption of soda – that is, the wrongheaded agricultural subsidies that have resulted in a liter bottle of Coke being cheaper than a similar-sized container of skim milk.

All of this said, though, I do admire Mayor Bloomberg for his dogged, forward-thinking approaches to improving public health in his city, where, currently, over half of adults are overweight or obese. Undeterred by the prior defeat of his proposed soda tax and food stamp/soda ban – and the $70 million spent by the soda lobby around the country since 2009 to defeat such measures – Bloomberg’s latest salvo does show ingenuity and real political courage.

So it may well be that, after a lot of initial grumbling, New Yorkers will eventually grow accustomed to thinking of a “large soda” as containing 16 ounces, which, it’s worth noting, is still twice as large as the serving size Americans thought of as “standard” back in the 1950s. Moreover, if the measure proves at all successful in lowering the city’s rates of disease and/or obesity, that data could prove to be a powerful tool in future battles against Big Soda.

If any of that comes to pass, I’ll happily eat my words here. And wash them down with a very small glass of Coke.


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  1. says

    Here’s my take on the matter: the Mayor (and those who want to micro-manage our behaviors wrt the consumption of “sugary drinks”) may well be factually correct in their assertions. However, who appointed them to be the Deciders-in-Chief over how the rest of us live our lives? I am sorry (not really), but we (the adults among us) are not small children, requiring someone to continually tell us what to do. There is plenty of information out there on the risks/dangers of over-consumption of sugar-laden foodstuffs, and I have chosen to cease drinking beverages sweetened with HFCS (and I seldom drink beverages sweetened with “cane sugar”.) However, there are still eating habits that the “conventional wisdom” maintains are bad that I partake in (some are recommended in the most recent dietary guidelines I was given by a dietician, while in the hospital), and what is to prevent the Mayor (or the Dept. of Health in NYC or elsewhere) from banning those foods, as well?

    Ultimately: the freedom to choose means that people will make decisions we don’t agree with. And, since they are THEIR DECISIONS TO MAKE, in the final analysis it is NO BUSINESS OF OURS. So, if you want to drink a Big Gulp, or a Venti Mocha, or eat a turkey leg, or a bag of Oreos, or if you want to marry someone of the same gender, or go to Disney World on vacation, or go to a nudist camp on vacation… it is your business, your decision. God gave you the free will with which to make that decision, and I don’t have the right to negate that (unless I am greater than God, which is a risky assertion to make.)


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Ed – as you saw in my post, the paternalism here does make me queasy. But yesterday I saw a post (can’t recall where I saw it yesterday but will try to share the link) which argued that by the time Bloomberg was reelected for this current term, New Yorkers fully understood his very agressive approach to public health. I’m not sure that’s the same thing as tacit approval of taking away large soda cups, but it was an interesting point anyway.

      • says

        Yes, I think are are definitely more in agreement than not on this one (even to the point of opposing beverage advertising in the schools, and the ban on using food stamps to purchase sugary sodas. After all, if you are asking someone else to pay your grocery bill, by definition you have ceded some amount of control – and thus decicion-making authority – over what goes in the grocery basket.)

        While I can understand the point that post made wrt the voters of NYC knowing Bloomberg’s aggressive position on public health, it is a foreign concept to me (maybe that’s because I’m a native Texan, and we can tend to be sort of independent cusses.)


        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          I just snorted my coffee by imagining how such a proposal would fare here in TX, Ed. :-)

    • mommm!!! says

      I think taxpayers end up paying for obesity related health care costs and so far no one here has mentioned that. I mean it’s one thing if some of us are fat. But when the amount of people who are fat end up costing the health care system billions of dollars in fat related health issues then it’s time we take a look at what the heck is going on, no?

    • Uly says

      At the moment, the corporations are the ones in charge of “how you live your life” or at least how much soda you buy.

      I really resent that I can’t go into McDonald’s or Burger King and get a reasonably sized soda. I can’t finish a “small” soda! It’s too much, but they don’t sell smaller sizes. And I hate, hate, hate that if I buy one most of it will be wasted.

      Is banning larger sizes the answer? Probably not, but I never understand people who don’t want “the government” telling them what to do but are perfectly happy allowing big business to do just that.

      • doug says

        The difference is that big business says “take it or leave it”. The government says “take it or suffer the consequences”.

        • Uly says

          I’m sorry, I thought the law was proposing to not allow individual portions to be a certain size. I didn’t realize that instead the law was to shoot anybody who ever drank more than that at one sitting!

  2. says

    I’m not sure I agree with the characterization of this measure as “forbidding people outright to buy the size of soda they desire”; that would be a law which made it a criminal offense for a vendor to sell, or a customer to purchase, more than 16 oz of soda, wouldn’t it? Whereas this proposed measure sets a limit on portion size only, but not on the number of portions one may obtain.

    The movie theater near my home sells a large soft drink that is 32 oz; that’s their biggest size. Does that mean they are “forbidding me to buy the size of soda I desire”, if I happen to desire 64 oz of beverage? No, it just means that I have to buy two drinks. Same thing with this law, if I understand it correctly. A customer could still buy as much soda as their heart desires under this measure, but there might be a disincentive, such as paying more, or having to visit the free refill station more frequently. Presumably those disincentives would discourage at least some people from drinking more than 16 oz of soda with their movie or fast food meal, but those who require more would still be free to obtain it, even if at a price.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      That’s a fair point. I guess rather than using “ban” I should say “measures to inconvenience those who want to purchase.”

      And just to be clear: in my ideal world, of course no one would ever be drinking 32 oz of soda at one sitting. It’s just that I’m not sure this is the best way to achieve that end. At any rate, I’ll be very curious to see if this (a) survives inevitable soda lobby attack and (b) has a real impact on NY’ers health.

  3. says

    Hi Bettina, very well said! I agree there are so many better ways to address obesity and unhealthy eating, but at the same time I give Bloomberg credit for continuing to try to find something he can do within his locus of control. One thing I want to add on the “personal responsibility” front – the idea that we have free will over what we eat even without rules such as this is such a myth. Our choices are hugely influenced by what is cheap, available, and trendy – so if soda is cheap, it’s everywhere in large quantities, the marketing tells you you’re really cool if you can drink 32 ounces, and it’s a “better deal” to buy the biggest size, well, you’re much more likely to do that than if you’d have to buy TWO sodas to get that amount. So yes, those of us who are very well educated in this space certainly know that 16 ounces is more than enough, but not everyone is in that boat. I really wish I could be in the camp of less government interference, but sadly, already existing government interference (e.g., subsidies) and the free reign of food companies and marketing means that the deck is stacked impossibly high against the majority of people being reasonably expected to make good personal decisions. So until we can fix the system, I think any effort to balance the playing field a little more is appreciated.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Alissa: That’s a good point. There are so many subtle — but in some ways equally “coercive” — forces encouraging bad choices, perhaps justifying more than usual “coercion” on the other side of the equation.

  4. says

    Since hearing about this yesterday, I too have been meaning to write a blog piece on it and just haven’t done so yet. I was happy to see you tackle the subject this morning.

    I agree that portion sizes in general are a big part of our obesity problems. In fact, my own extra weight is probably partially attributed to the fact that, “I eat what’s on my plate.” Something has to be done to show these restaurants that what they’re doing with the super-sized portions (and it’s the sit-down restaurants too, not just McD’s) is just morally wrong and they’re partially responsible and should be held accountable for the consequences. However, I’m not sure this law is a very effective or “fair” step in that direction.

    For one, it’s entirely too targeted. As you pointed-out, they’ve basically singled-out a very specific food in a very specific setting and they left large obvious loopholes (like free refills, Big Gulps, and how about the 24oz bottles that come out of vending machines). While I’m not exactly going to shed a tear for Coke and Pepsi’s profits margins, I also don’t think it’s fair that a law can restrict one product while it’s offered alongside a super-sized fry and a triple cheeseburger with extra bacon, cheese, and dripping with mayo-based sauce. Or how about that pasta dish at your favorite Italian restaurant that’s served in a bowl that holds nearly a pound of penne?

    Bottom line, I think that if we want to do something to discourage the serving, offering, or purchase of large portion sizes, it’s a great idea. Picking on one specific product and only having your law apply to that product in certain circumstances is not a fair or effective approach. It’s just a way of blaming one company for the problems caused by many. It’s a scapegoat tactic.

    • says

      Or, it is a first step, and if/when it proves to be effective, it can be applied to other items which are also oversized…….gotta start somewhere!

    • Kate says

      Good point about picking on one product only. Bettina’s point about the Starbucks item that contained more sugar than soda is one reason I dislike government getting involved in these issues. The people who never drink soda but are at Starbucks daily are getting a false sense of security about what they are eating.

  5. doug says

    Whispering in a back alley: “Pssst, wanna buy a sleeve of 32oz cups?”

    Ever wonder why New York leads the country in underground restaurants?

    I totally agree with EdT.

  6. kaplan says

    [ ” There are so many subtle — but in some ways equally “coercive” — forces encouraging bad choices, perhaps justifying more than usual “coercion” on the other side of the equation. ”
    — Bettina Elias Siegel ]


    …Ahhh, there’s the core issue here — a wise & noble American political elite {Bloomberg, etc} justly guiding (coercing) the ignorant masses to make the “right” choices in their lives.

    The ‘regulatory state’, American liberalism’s instrument of coercion, constantly tries to reduce the individual citizen’s zone of sovereignty and personal choice — for the individual’s own good
    {…of course ?}.

    The few must direct the many (?)

    The charade of popular elections enables the few — empowered & wisely selected to office by those ignorant “many” at the ballot box. But if the mass of citizens is so dumb … how are they suddenly smart enough to elect “brilliant” rulers like Bloomberg on Election Day ?

    {note that two-thirds of the NYC electorate did NOT vote for Bloomberg in the last 2009 mayoral election}.

    Society is a marvel of spontaneous order among individuals in voluntary cooperation.
    However, most members of the American liberal/progressive class view other Americans as malleable — therefore vulnerable herd whose “false consciousness” is imposed by corporate America. Thus, the herd needs kindly, paternal supervision by a cohort of protective herders. This means subordination of the bovine many to a regulatory government staffed by persons drawn from that clever liberal minority… not manipulated into false consciousness.

    Such government structure presumes the public’s incompetence — thus it owes minimal deference to people’s actual preferences. Those preferences are not really “theirs” — because the preferences derive from false, meaning imposed, consciousness.

    This convenient theory licenses the enlightened vanguard — the political class, to exercise maximum discretion in wielding the powers of the regulatory state. Petty tyrant Bloomberg embraces this theory.

  7. Kate says

    I’d have to wonder what the unforeseen consequences of this will be. If a profit was to be made on selling sodas of larger sizes, does that mean restaurants will have to look for other places to make more profit, including non soda items.

    When and if I ever consume soda…I like lots of ice. Will people now use less or no ice, and basically consume as much soda as before?

  8. says

    I liked this comment on my FB page: “I have a feeling [Bloomberg] has no thoughts it will actually pass, but it is drawing attention to the problem like never before!” Provocative thought!

    As for me, I don’t know how you decide what gets banned and what doesn’t. For example, super-size sugary sodas are ban-worthy, but diet sodas (which are linked to health problems as well) are not?

    Thanks, Bettina, for your interesting take on this topic!

  9. mommm!!! says

    So if sugar, or sugar like substances are the target….because there are only 3 or 4 sodas available on the market that do NOT contain hfcs that I know of and NONE of them are available on fountain (those being mexican Coke, Pepsi Throwback, Hansens, and Sierra Mist Throwback) then why not look at all processed foods containing hfcs instead? And here’s why:
    Let’s say you have gone through the day and you had breakfast, lunch and dinner. No snacks. No sodas.
    For breakfast you had toast and maybe some fruit.
    For lunch you had a sandwich, some crackers, some carrots.
    For dinner you had some salad, some pasta with marinara, and some garlic bread.
    Sounds healthy, right? No desserts, no sodas. In three meals you have exposed yourself a minimum of 5 times to consumption of hfcs and possibly as many as 10 times depending on how many processed foods you used in those meals, like a prepared marinara sauce, salad dressing, sandwich bread, etc. When you start to look at just how many products on the shelves contain hfcs, the large soda to wash it all down with is just the cherry on the sundae. hfcs has literally inundated our food supply. I actually didn’t start noticing it myself until I started reading the ingredients on loaves of sliced bread. It was depressing to pick up loaf after loaf regardless of price only to find hfcs on every single label on all but one lonely brand on the entire shelf. And the whole time I was packing my son’s lunches with crackers instead of chips thinking I was making the better choice. I was shocked to find hfcs in every box of our favorite cracker brands (Wheatables? Really?)
    So I’m also highly suspect of soda being singled out. Is it the worst offender? Probably yes. But soda is the obvious offender. What about the wheat sandwich breads and “wholesome” crackers harboring hfcs with pictures of wheat stalks on the boxes and bags? I think the pervasiveness of hfcs is much more insidious than the obvious soda. People can try to eat healthy and still take in copious amounts of the stuff without even trying. I had to drastically change my buying to fully eradicate hfcs from our lives. I dream of the day where I don’t have to be a vigilante about food labels when I shop for groceries.

    • Kate says

      One thing I wanted to point out about your post is that eating smaller amounts of HFCS(or other carbs) throughout the day, is that it is processed by your body in a completely different way than consuming any sort of sugary(hfcs or other type of sugar) drink in a large quantity, in one sitting.

      That is what makes the consumption of soda in large quantities so concerning. I’m not advocating in support of any sort of legislation by making this statement, though.

      • mommm!!! says

        No, I totally see your point. But if your lunch ingredients combined for one day’s lunch contained as many grams of hfcs as one can of soda, would you more concerned? Or less? Because I think that eliminating hfcs from processed foods (where it mostly makes me wonder why it’s there to begin with because do Wheatables really need hfcs to exist?) then the soda issue may not be as serious. To me, it’s a compounded issue, not a singular one.
        Let me break it down…I’m going to use what most people would consider “healthy” (more or less) options and give you the grams of hfcs in a typical lunch brought from home.

        ~Oroweat 7 grain sliced bread = 8 grams of “sugar” although the ingredient list says hfcs. They list the serving size as one slice which enables them to say there is only 4 grams per serving. (hmmm)
        ~Oscar Mayer ham = 1 gram of sugar for 3 slices
        ~Any given slice of processed american cheese = 1.50 grams sugar
        ~Kraft Fat Free Mayo = 1 gram of “sugar” although the label lists hfcs just fourth on it’s long list just after sugar and the serving size is just one tablespoon. riiiiight… (hhmm)

        Ok so we’re at a minimum of about 12 grams of high fructose corn syrup JUST for a sandwich. Let’s say you add some crackers.
        ~Pepperidge Farm Harvest Wheat Crackers (sounds healthy, yeah?) A serving size is just 2 crackers and there is 2 grams of sugar per serving size. That’s a gram of sugar per cracker! I could not find a Nabisco cracker that does NOT contain hfcs.

        If you have some salad with your 12 grams of hfcs sandwich and your dressing of choice is Kraft Fat Free Italian Dressing, the serving size is 2 tablespoons which contains 2.2 grams of hfcs.

        So, for a ham and cheese sandwich (on wheat I might add) with a sparse hint of fat free mayo, two crackers, and a handful of salad with fat free dressing, we’re at 17 grams with at least 12-13 of those grams being hfcs and that’s only IF you strictly stick to the serving sizes (who has only 2 crackers and one tablespoon of mayo? not I!) so we’re talking about ballooning this intake of hfcs to about 20 grams or more. And that’s just lunch! That’s not far off the amount of hfcs in one can of soda.
        I think it’s time to wake up to where the less obvious culprits are hiding in our food supply because it’s not just sodas and sweets.
        As far as hfcs being processed in our bodies differently when it’s in a soda or when it’s in a slice of bread I have to say I’m skeptical.

  10. Kristen says

    My only comment is on the point that soda is cheaper than a similar sized container of milk. Actually, where I live a half-gallon of milk is cheaper than a bottle of soda at a $1.49 vs $2 for a 2-liter. Even on sale soda is still $1.50/bottle. I remember when soda was $0.50 to $0.99 a 2-liter. I now limit my fiance to two bottles of diet soda per week b/c the price has risen so much over the last year. Granted, we buy name brand so this isn’t true for the store brand which sells it’s soda for only $0.79 a 2-liter.

  11. Wilma says

    I don’t like the idea of banning anything. You’ll be seeing the soda black market in NY if this law sticks. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
    I typically make healthy choices and avoid things laced with HFCS, sugar and the like… but some days I just want a huge ice cold soda. I’ll sip on that soda all day and it is a treat for me. I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions. I’m educated on the health consequences of consuming too many “empty calories” like soda. My education helps me understand that the soda is a treat, not a daily staple.
    I don’t think a mayor should have the right to tell me I can’t have my one guilty pleasure. Bettina, what if the Mayor of Houston banned the sale of Stacy’s Pita Chips (which we both know are a weakness for me as well as many otherwise healthy people like a blogger I know…). They are something I consider a guilty pleasure because when they are in my home, they only last 1 day!! I’m sure I’d find a way to get those pita chips when a hummus and pita chip craving hits. In fact, I’d probably become a dealer of pita chips if a ban like that is implemented in my home town.
    The issue I always go back to is education. You can take away the trigger but if you don’t TEACH people why it was taken away there will not be a systemic change. You tell a child WHY you should look both ways before crossing the street so they don’t have to learn the hard way: by getting hit by a car. People should be educated on WHY they need to limit their intake of sugar/hfcs beverages so they don’t learn the hard way by gaining excess weight and becoming diabetic. Maybe I have too much faith that people can self regulate if they have the right knowledge. Maybe we all need “big brother” making sure we don’t drink too much soda and eat our vegetables.
    By the way, the law in question doesn’t regulate the number of sodas you can purchase… just the size. So if you are really determined to have 32 oz of Coke, you can buy 2 16 oz cups. A little more cumbersome, more waste to send to a landfill… but at least it meets the letter of the law. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    • Uly says

      How would you see a “soda black market”?

      Let’s keep our complaints reasonable – or at least logical. What, do you think people are going to sneak out into the back alley of a restaurant to buy soda rather than simply ordering a second?

      • Wilma says


        My joking sarcasm is much more obvious in person… I know that a black market is not reasonable or logical. Just a little humor to lighten the mood.

        • Uly says

          Sometimes online it’s SO hard to tell, because a lot of people are being serious!

          The proposed law is more than a little overreaching and dumb, I’ll agree… but I do wish I could get smaller sizes sometimes.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      OMG – now you’re getting personal, Wilma! They’ll take away my Stacy’s from my cold, dead hands. :-) But seriously, as you saw in my post, I, too, felt this proposal crossed a line. Yet I’m still grateful to Bloomberg for starting a national conversation about the over-consumption of soda and sugary drinks, both with this proposed ban and with his advertising campaign. I do feel it’s long overdue, and hopefully can be part of the education you advocate here.

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