Hundreds of people gathered on Tuesday at the New York City Board of Health’s public hearing to weigh in on Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s controversial proposal to ban large-size sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages from the city’s restaurants, delis, sports arena vendors, movie theaters and food carts.
The hearing drew health and nutrition experts, politicians and beverage industry representatives, who faced off over the proposed ban, on which the Board of Health is scheduled to vote in September. Although the issue is a local one, its outcome is likely to effect national change: Bloomberg’s previous policies — his public smoking ban, trans fat ban and mandatory calorie counts on restaurant menus, for example — have sparked similar federal laws or have been adopted by other cities and localities.
The soda ban has similarly triggered a heated debate nationwide, and on Tuesday, supporters and critics each had five minutes in front of the board to express their opinions on the matter. Below is a roundup of the most notable arguments.
Nutrition and medical experts favored the ban, which would prohibit the sale of any sugar-sweetened beverage over 16 oz., arguing that it would undeniably protect public health. Large portion sizes of sugary drinks make it easy for people to overconsume calories, especially from added sugar, since overdrinking is easier than overeating, experts noted:
“Soda in large amounts is metabolically toxic. … It’s obvious that this is the right thing to do.”
—Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health
“Larger portions lead to overconsumption. … This is firmly established in science. There is no reason for larger portions except for more consumption.”
“You don’t feel as full when you consume calories in liquids. … These beverages are the single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet.”
—Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for food policy and obesity at Yale University
Supporters of the ban also compared soda companies’ marketing and lobbying tactics to those used by the tobacco industry. Critics on the other side of the debate mocked the comparison and characterized the proposed ban as another example of the government overreaching into people’s everyday lives:
“When they came for the cigarettes, I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t smoke. When they came for the M.S.G., I didn’t say anything because I don’t eat it very often. … What is the government going to tell me next? What time to go to bed? How big my steaks should be?”
—Dan Halloran, city councilman from Queens
“This proposal restricts choice. New Yorkers can make our own choices about what to buy, and in what quantities — whether it’s soda, lemonade, tea or a juice or sports drink.”
—Liz Berman, president of Continental Food and Beverage, Inc.
Another industry rep said the ban wasn’t backed by science:
“Added sugars, including sugar-sweetened beverages, are no more likely to cause weight gain than other sources of calories. … Regulation is not the best choice, particularly when there is little empirical scientific data to show there is a public benefit for this type of approach.”
“It’s not reasonable to blame or cite one product.”
—Joy Dubost, director of health for the National Restaurant Association, a Washington-based industry group
The “nanny state” argument is irrelevant, said others. The main focus should be on reining in rates of obesity and the skyrocketing health-care costs of obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and premature death. How to do that? Counter industry marketing with regulation:
“Portraying a vitally important health initiative as an assault on consumers’ rights is simply distracting. … For more than 100 years, the soda industry has had free reign and for many years it was not a problem because people mostly drank in moderation. … Now container sizes have jumped and the marketing of these drinks — especially to adolescents — has exploded to more than $2 billion a year.”
—Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest