By Karen Frantz
Controversy over a proposal to limit the size of sugary drinks in many New York City food service establishments played out at a public hearing last week, with opponents blasting the so-called soda ban as government overreach but supporters saying it was an important measure to bring down obesity rates.
The soda rule would limit the size of sweetened drinks to 16 ounces in any establishment that requires a city Department of Health grade, including restaurants, movie theaters, and sports arenas.
It would not apply to grocery stores or convenience marts, or to other drinks such as diet soda, alcohol, or primarily fruit or dairy-based drinks.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed the rule and has said it would help curb the costs of treating obesity-related ailments, which he says is $4 billion per year.
The hearing was held July 24 at the Long Island City headquarters of the city Health Department, which will vote on the measure in September.
Critics at the hearing said the rule arbitrarily singles out soda as the cause of obesity and that it would unfairly apply to some but not all vendors.
City Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) lambasted the proposal, saying it would hurt local business.
“This short-sided measure will shut down production in movie theaters, pizza places, restaurants, coffee shops — even ice cream parlors will be affected by this absolutely ridiculous ban,” he said.
He said small businesses would have to choose between firing employees or closing. “Yet right next door the local 7-Eleven can still sell the supersized 120-ounce Big Gulp,” he said.
He also pointed to facilities in Queens such as Pepsi, Vitaminwater and Tropicana that he said would lose employment opportunities for New Yorkers because of the ban.
City Councilman Oliver Koppell (D-Bronx) also opposed the proposal, saying it was an “obstruction of the rights of New Yorkers to choose for themselves the beverages that they want to consume.”
Other detractors said there were more effective ways to address obesity, such as providing better education and alleviating poverty.
However, many public health advocates and medical professionals speaking at the public hearing defended the proposal, arguing that it was an important step in fighting obesity.
Walter Willet, who has studied the causes of obesity as the chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, said that it makes perfect sense to single out soda.
“Soda is indeed the right target,” he said. “It is dangerous. It’s not the only target, but it is by far the most single important target.”
Soda is the largest contributor to weight gain because the body does not recognize excess sugars in liquid form as it does in solid food, Willet said. Therefore, people tend to add the extra calories from sugary drinks to their diets rather than substituting them for other foods, he said.
Since the 1970s, soda has accounted for about 150 of 300 extra calories consumed per day in the American diet, he said. Therefore, he projected that eliminating soda from people’s diets could cut obesity rates in half.
Other proponents of the rule also pointed out that the sizes of sodas and other sugary drinks have substantially grown in recent decades and that people may not be aware of what is an appropriate serving size.
They said that limiting the size of sugary drinks would force people to consciously decide if they should have more.
Reach reporter Karen Frantz by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.