On Monday, if you believe many commentators, a state Supreme Court justice rolled back the New York City "nanny state" when he struck down the proposed ban on soda containers larger than 16 ounces. It was a win for democracy, or at least for anyone who doesn't like being scolded.
But I have to ask: Who really wins with this judgment? And what does everyone cheering for Justice Tingling's verdict suggest we do to reverse the trend that saw American obesity levels double in just 30 years?
Let me be clear: If this ban had gone so far as to sweep sodas from the shelves of the city, I'd have been out protesting as loudly as anyone. When fad diets forbid a food, it becomes the food you most crave.
And of course, this wasn't a "soda ban" at all. No one would have stopped you from buying two 16-ounce sodas to replace the 32-ounce cup.
But the statistics are scarier than any "nagging" from a politician. Sugar addiction is a public health menace. The price tag for diabetes in 2012 was $245 billion. Obesity, in 2008, cost the nation $147 billion. Perhaps the New York City government wasn't just worried about people killing themselves. There have been wars with smaller price tags than those tied to diseases caused by our supersized lifestyle.
Many complained about the ban's loopholes -- juices, coffee drinks, supermarkets -- through which sugar addicts still could access rivers of high-fructose corn syrup. This criticism is fair, but it misses a greater point. I don't think anyone believed that the ban would prevent New Yorkers from drinking too much soda. It might have pushed back against the relentless, subliminal campaign that soda producers have been waging to protect their market share, public health be damned. As such, it deserved praise, not ridicule.
Most ban critics seem to presume that government intervention is bad. Really bad. It's never meant to help you. It's just invasive, ineffectual and it has no sense of humor. But just suppose: What if this time, the government was here to help?
Try for a moment to think about the soda ban as a warning, like "fire hazard" or "dangerous intersection." Are restrictions on reckless behavior clear evidence of a nanny state? Are laws requiring drivers to heed stoplights the work of meddling bureaucrats? Could they be honest attempts at keeping us safe and enhancing the common good?
At best, this ban could have helped sugar addicts stop and think about their purchases. Don't underestimate the importance of that little check. Diet counselors are always advising their clients to stop and think. Our clients are desperate for cues that can help them break free of ingrained overeating patterns. Most people, before they end unhealthy habits, crave change long before they manage it. They'll take help from any quarter. Even, I'd argue, from a city government that wants to make it harder to buy 32 ounces of carbonated sugar in one oversized cup.
Focus on freedom of choice long enough and you might forget that drinking 2.6 glasses of soda a day is insane. Simply insane.
Soda doesn't quench thirst. It does not hydrate the body. It has no nourishment. It should be a treat, yet we chug it like we should be chugging water. Why?
In part it's cultural. Many of us have been taught that a clean plate belongs to the virtuous. We're conditioned to eat and drink what's in front of us and never pass up a good deal ("sir/madam, for 25 cents more, you can have the super jumbo size"). A bigger container means there's a bigger job ahead; we have to make room, even when we're full or we're being "wasteful." So eat up!
Meanwhile, the major soda brands didn't become national icons simply because people liked them. They worked very, very hard for that brand recognition.
And when the soda ban was proposed, they lobbied we the people to reject it in the name of freedom of choice. But make no mistake: For soda companies and their subsidiaries, this was about money. Nothing else. And they won.
Do we the people win, too? I doubt it. Tingling's decision is a setback in the fight against our national sugar addiction. The soda ban was an imperfect beginning, surely, but it was a beginning. It was not going to end our sugar addiction any more than making bars and restaurants smoke-free was going to get the city to en masse kick the smoking habit. It was a one small factor in a complex equation.
But if it's total freedom you love, go ahead and toast the premature death of the soda ban. Here's my suggestion though: Make it a sparkling mineral water. That's fizz that puts soda carbonation to shame. It's low in sodium, wonderfully refreshing and it will hydrate your body. And there's nothing in it that can hurt you.
So I'm starting a new campaign: Wherever you can buy 16 ounces of sparkling mineral water, the larger size should be available, for just a quarter more. How's that for choice?
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