By Martin Dolan
Twenty years from now, imagine trying to explain to your awestruck grandchildren that — in the olden days — you could walk into a convenience store any time you liked and purchase 72 ounces of soda in a single container.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial proposal to ban the sale of super-sized, sugary soft drinks sparked lots of questions. The biggest of which is: "What's next?" Are prohibitions on double cheeseburgers, deep-dish pizza and tubs of buttery movie-theater popcorn far behind?
Reactions to Bloomberg's proposal have been wide-ranging as politicians, ideologues, nutritionists, avid soda consumers and everybody else have weighed in on the proposal and its larger implications, among them: The emergence of a "Nanny State," America's degenerating dietary habits and the effects soda can have on one's health compared to other consumables.
Although the outcome and aftermath of the ban remain uncertain, one thing is not: The New York City government, like any other American civic body, is perfectly within its realm of authority to enact legislation designed to protect you from — yourself.
Dictating what companies can sell or telling private citizens how much they can buy, eat or drink is never an easy sell in a country founded on the principle of personal freedom. Either way, it's a concern that continues to exist.
Let's return to the issue at hand. In an effort to combat obesity and ease the city's health-care costs due to increased weight issues and diabetes, Bloomberg's proposal would ban the sale of any sugar-based drink in servings larger than 16 ounces. Bloomberg insists that the legal authority exists to restrict soda sales without outside agency approval based on the city's jurisdiction over local eating establishments.
"Nanny State" critics argue that such a far-reaching ban infringes on personal freedoms and that Bloomberg is overstepping his authority. But local governments can implement such bans without violating a person's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Traditionally, such laws have withstood legal challenges. Chicago has been thrust into the national spotlight in recent years with its own bans on ingestible items. The Chicago City Council's 2006 ban on foie gras lasted two short years. In the Illinois General Assembly, a ban on trans fats breezed through the Illinois House of Representatives, only to be shot down by the state Senate. A similar battle was recently waged in Ohio, when Cleveland instituted a ban on foods containing industrially produced trans fats. Before the law could go into effect, the state legislature passed a law pre-empting local governments from restricting the sale or consumption of food based on nutritional information. Recently, a court upheld Cleveland's right to the ban.
In Bloomberg's defense, it's easy to identify the scourge that the impending soda ban intends to curb. The obesity epidemic afflicting our country continues to spiral out of control. Recent studies say about one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) are classified as obese, up from just 13 percent in 1962. These figures also translate to staggering health-care costs; in 2008, medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion.
Health experts have named calorie-ridden soft drinks as one of the top obesity contributors to obesity in our nation. The upward trend in obesity over the past few decades has mirrored the upward trend of other relevant factors, including the portion sizes of commercial foods which, of course, include soda.
And unlike cheeseburgers and pizzas, which can actually provide an inkling of dietary necessities like proteins and energy, soda carries virtually no nutritional value. None. So, because sodas are so high in calories (240 in a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola), people who consume several each day are receiving a high caloric intake from a substance totally devoid of any health benefits.
"Right now the question is whether or not 16 ounces should be banned, but in my opinion, eliminating soda from our diets altogether would be better," said Lara Field, a registered dietician in Chicago who works primarily with families. "There's nothing beneficial at all about it. There are no vitamins or minerals, it's just extra sugar that is proven to lead to obesity."
The most important thing is the total calories in soda versus the total calories we consume in a day. If the typical 12-ounce soda has 150 calories, and you're a woman with a daily calorie range of 1,500, then just one can of soda makes up 10 percent of your recommended daily intake, Field said.
For some people, reliance on soda, particularly diet sodas, is a bona fide addiction. Scientists have theorized that the artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas can actually lure receptors in your brain to crave the beverages. Diet-soda addicts have even sought rehab services to help kick their habits and clinicians report witnessing similar withdrawal symptoms in soda patients as those trying to wean themselves from heroin.
Bloomberg's proposal won't come up for a vote until September, and even if the ban is approved, it wouldn't take effect until March 2013. At the very least, the discourse surrounding the proposal has already succeeded in raising awareness about the health dangers of soda overconsumption.