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Dr. Jonny Bowden Headshot

Soda and the Nanny State

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On Tuesday, March 12, on the day before it was scheduled to go into effect, a state judge struck down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on jumbo-sized sodas, triggering a paroxysm of editorials about the nanny state and the future of civilization.

OK, everybody, let's take a deep breath.

I hate the nanny state as much as you do, but that dislike comes with an asterisk.

See, it's not the idea of regulation per se that I dislike. It's the fact that the government is a bumbling mess, gets few things right and tends to eventually screw up the few things they do get right -- like Medicare and the VA. So the last thing I want is a bunch of government bureaucrats telling me what I can eat, who I can sleep with, what I can smoke, who I can marry, what my female friends can do with their bodies, or any of a dozen other things they have no business telling me to do (or not do).

But I -- like many fellow nanny-state-haters on both sides of the aisle -- sing a very different tune about government when a Hurricane Katrina appears or a bumbling terrorist tries to light his underwear on fire on a 747. We're perfectly happy that there are rules and regulations that prevent our neighbors from erecting a 10-foot monument to the KKK on the town square, or a local factory from pumping mercury into the air, or a strip club from opening next door to St. John's Cathedral. We want government oversight and regulation when it protects us from what we want to be protected from. When it "protects" us from what we don't want to be protected from, we'd prefer it to leave us the heck alone, thank you very much.

And we like government least of all when it interferes with our personal liberty.

Which brings us to the heart of the soda problem.

Look, I get the whole "personal liberty" argument. Really, I do. I listen to Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager. I love Jon Stewart. There are times when, if I squint, even Ron Paul seems to make sense for a minute, particularly when he gets started on the idiocy of the government preventing me from consuming raw milk. I even understand the sentiment behind the slippery-slope argument (today our soda, tomorrow our guns!). Believe me, I get it.

So in a perfect world, we'd have as little government interference as possible.

But this is very far from that perfect world. And in the world we actually live in, we're being poisoned by sugar.

Despite the massive protests and multi-milliondollar campaigns by the sugar industry, the Corn Refiners Association and others to convince us that sugar is a perfectly harmless substance that can be incorporated "in moderation" in a healthy diet, the truth is very different. Sugar is an addictive substance that we consume to the tune of 150 pounds per capita per year, and it's destroying our health and destroying our children.

And we have two basic choices. We can fail to act, citing the sanctity of personal freedom and the encroachment of the dreaded nanny-state... or we can do something.

This isn't the place to go over the massive evidence that sugar is the culprit in the American diet. For those who didn't get the memo, I recommend the terrific new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Dr. Robert Lustig's brilliant Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease (or his lecture, "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" on YouTube), or -- if you just want to get your feet wet -- Mark Bittman's wonderfully clear and pithy "Regulating Our Sugar Habit" in the New York Times a few weeks ago. Even a superficial look at the literature will convince all but the most entrenched supporters of Big Food that sugar -- and its nearly-identical twin, high-fructose corn syrup -- are not innocent bystanders in the skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We're not fat, sick, tired and depressed because they took phys ed out of the school system or because everyone watches too much television. Sure, those things matter, but they pale in comparison to the effect of mainlining a deadly white substance that literally creates hormonal havoc and appetite dysregulation, all the while promoting metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

What to do, what to do?

Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, and when it comes to sugar, these are desperate times indeed.

The defenders of personal freedom who are applauding the strikedown of the Bloomberg initiative would be appalled at the suggestion that heroin dealers be allowed to peddle their wares in schoolyards. Yet these same folks bristle at the mere suggestion of regulations which would make it even marginally more difficult for sugar pushers to do the same thing. These champions of "personal liberty" tell us that regulations don't take the place of parenting -- that keeping kids out of McDonald's should be the job of parents, not the government. (I often wonder if the people making this argument actually have kids, and if they do, I wonder if they live in the real world. But I digress.) None of these good folks would ever agree to having crack cocaine sold in their kids' school cafeteria because to ban it would be an affront to personal liberty, and because "it should be the goal of good parenting" to keep kids from buying this stuff in the first place.

Look, back in the late '90s I worked for Coca-Cola for a year, during the time they introduced Dasani water. I sat on the advisory board for Dasani, wrote articles about the benefits of purified water, and worked closely with a lot of execs from Coke. They were nice people. Really. But as a corporation, they're selling death. Seriously. And they're selling it to children, and they've sold it to us, and there's no getting around the fact that the stuff they -- and other soda manufacturers are selling -- is a wildly destructive substance with no redeeming qualities that is destroying the health of America and any other nation in which they can get a foothold.

Are the soda makers the only culprits? Hell, no. (And they'll be the first to tell you so!) But they're a damn good place to start.

Did the Bloomberg proposal have faults? You bet. Did it have loopholes? Sure. Would it present an enforcement nightmare? Probably, although not nearly as bad as critics have suggested.

But that does that mean we sit back and do nothing?

No. We're up against a serious enemy here folks, and its name is sugar. In all its forms, including the kind that's marketed as healthy (agave nectar syrup, anyone?). Including the stuff that turns into sugar in a heartbeat, also marketed as healthy. (Breakfast candy? I mean, cereal?)

Because there is no perfect intervention, does that mean we don't intervene at all?

Sure, making it illegal to sell obscenely-sized vats of sugar and chemicals is a logistical nightmare, fraught with problems and far from ideal.

But it's a start.

I have huge qualms about giving our government more power than it already has over what we can put into our bodies -- particularly when that government has demonstrated jaw-dropping stupidity when it comes to nutrition in general. But whenever I think that the "solution" is worse than the problem, I remember how bad sugar really is and what it's doing to our health, our well-being and ultimately, even our national security.

And then I remember something that's served me well to remember in a lot of endeavors, something that is a great antidote to my -- and others' -- natural tendency toward inaction in the face of what seems like an insurmountable problem:

"The greatest enemy of a good plan is the search for a perfect one."

Is the Bloomberg initiative a perfect plan? Far from it.

But right now it's all we've got, and it's better than nothing. And man, we better start somewhere.

Why not here?

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