The New York City Soda Ban, and a Brief History of Bloomberg’s Nudges

Nothing like a tall, cool drink in the heat of summer, right? Not if it's a sugar-sweetened soda, and not if you're in New York City.

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Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is hoping city residents will drink a lot less this summer — less soda, that is.

On Wednesday the famously public health-focused mayor proposed a ban on the sale of large-sized sugar-sweetened beverages — that includes sodas, sweetened teas and coffees, energy drinks and fruit drinks. If approved, the proposal, which is slated to take effect as early as next March, would prohibit restaurants, delis, sports arena vendors, movie theaters and food carts regulated by the city health department from selling sugary beverages in sizes larger than 16 oz. Fines for failing to downsize could be as high as $200.

The ban would apply to food service establishments selling bottled as well as fountain drinks; retailers would have to remove 20-oz. soft drink bottles from their shelves, and delis and restaurants offering self-service fountains wouldn’t be able to give customers cups larger than 16 oz. The ban wouldn’t affect convenience stores or grocery stores and wouldn’t apply to diet drinks, fruit juices, dairy-based drinks like milkshakes or alcoholic beverages.

(MORE: Fast Food: Would You Like 1,000 Calories With That?)

“Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible,’” Mr. Bloomberg told the New York Times. “New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something.”

During his tenure, Bloomberg has done a lot, initiating several controversial public-health measures, many aimed at reducing obesity by encouraging people to adopt healthier lifestyles. Critics have disparaged him as Nanny Bloomberg for it, but many of the mayor’s sweeping policies have inspired policy makers across the country to do the same. Among his recent actions:

  • 2002: Bloomberg banned public smoking in the city’s bars and restaurants, following the lead of cities like Aspen, Colo., Beverly Hills and San Luis Obispo, Calif., which were the first to bar patrons from lighting up in restaurants and other enclosed public places
  • 2005: At the mayor’s urging, New York became the first city to force restaurants and other food vendors to phase out the use of artificial trans fats, which have been linked to obesity and heart disease. The initiative inspired other cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, to pass trans-fat bans of their own. Now entire counties and states are considering regulations that would take the fats out of their food.
  • 2008: New York became the first city to pass a law requiring food service providers to post calorie counts on menus. Seattle and other cities subsequently passed similar laws, and a federal law requiring any restaurant chain with more than 20 locations to publish calorie counts on their menus went into effect this year.
  • 2010: In his first swipe at the soda industry, Bloomberg proposed barring people from using food stamps to purchase sugary sodas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected the proposal saying it would be too difficult to enforce.
  • 2010: Bloomberg urged state legislators to pass a soda tax that would allow the state to collect an additional penny per ounce of sugared soda sold; it failed to pass.
  • 2011: The mayor banned smoking in most outdoor areas in the city, including public parks, plazas and beaches. San Jose, Calif., adopted a similar ban this year, and Boulder, Colo., policy makers are also considering limiting smoking outdoors.
  • Salt is also on the mayor’s hit list. He wants packaged food makers and restaurants to reduce sodium by 25% in an effort to lower rates of high blood pressure and heart disease.

(VIDEO: Does Targeting Fast Food Joints Actually Help Combat Obesity)

Improving New Yorkers’ health and eating habits has been one of Bloomberg’s signature missions as mayor. The city subways are plastered with public health messages, such as the graphic anti-obesity advertisements that show a sugary soda turning into fat as it’s poured into a glass. (In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched its own series of graphic advertisements: a national anti-smoking campaign.)

Studies are mixed on whether drastic public-health measures like Bloomberg’s can actually change behavior. Some show that people consume less in restaurants where calorie counts are available, for example, than where they aren’t, while others show that people actually tend to consume more when provided with such information. And low-income populations, which tend to have higher rates of obesity and health problems to start with, appear to be the least affected by such changes.

Still, Bloomberg and the city’s health department cite New York’s rising life expectancy as proof that the measures are working.

Beverage makers, not surprisingly, are critical of the new proposal, calling it “zealous” in a statement. “There they go again,” Stefan Friedman, spokesman for the New York City Beverage Association, told the Associated Press. “The New York City Health Department’s unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks is again pushing them over the top. The city is not going to address the obesity issue by attacking soda because soda is not driving the obesity rates.”

(MORE: Are Calories Counts on Menus Accurate? Not So Much)

The Coca-Cola Company also defended its products, noting that their beverages contain calorie information. “The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes,” it said in a statement. “We are transparent with our consumers. They can see exactly how many calories are in every beverage we serve…New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase.”

Whether or not it’s responsible for the obesity epidemic, studies show that sugared beverages are a major source of extra calories that can contribute to weight gain. The ban wouldn’t prevent a customer from ordering several small-sized sugary drinks, of course, or from helping themselves to refills at a fountain, but Bloomberg is hoping that at least at movie theaters and baseball stadiums, the inconvenience of carrying the additional cups will be enough to curb New Yorkers’ sugared drink habit.

The New York City Board of Health needs to approve the measure before it can take effect, which seems likely given the board’s support of the mayor’s previous public health efforts — and because all the members were appointed by Bloomberg. If the mayor has his way, residents and visitors to New York may soon be feeling thirsty for more.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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