Last week, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his proposal to ban the sale of sweetened sodas in sizes larger than 16 ounces. While this proposal might intuitively seem like a stride in the right direction -- who the heck needs more than 16 ounces of soda at a time anyway!? -- I personally couldn't disagree more with the move. For one, the implementation is flawed, with 2-liter-peddling supermarkets and sugar-laden juices escaping the executioner's axe, and I also believe it will be a challenge to stem the actions of a motivated Big Gulp purchaser (two 16-ouncers should do the trick, right?).
But more fundamentally, I disagree with the move on a philosophical basis. We live in the age of corporate social responsibility, whereby we expect corporations to self-regulate themselves in the interest of the environment, consumers, and the world community. We in fact become outraged when we hear of a corporation that has violated what we believe to be its socially responsible actions; Wall Street, Apple, Nike and BP, to name just a few, have all drawn ire by violating this responsibility. It's easy to vilify corporations that, in their insatiable appetite for profits, have thrown their implicit social contracts out the window. But what about the individual, whose appetite, too, leads him to violate social trust?
I believe America is in a crisis now, not only of corporate or governmental social responsibility, but of personal social responsibility; we're uncertain of whether Wall Street or Uncle Sam has our best interest at heart, but just the same we should be looking at our neighbor. Our problem is not simply a matter of sugar, fat and salt; it is a matter of choice, behavior and education. We live in a country where we make sure our children are mathematically educated enough to figure out that two 16-ounce sodas will get them their Big Gulp fix, but where roughly 96 percent of them are not required to have daily physical education classes in school. What exactly are we teaching them about behavior and choice?
Set aside what we're teaching young America, let's look at ourselves in the mirror. Most of us know what's healthy and what's not. I have had the privilege of meeting folks all over the country, and getting insight into their daily routines:
John Doe: "What can I do to eat better? I feel like I eat okay but I'm already heavy and continue to gain weight."
Me: "Well, let's start with breakfast -- what did you eat?"
John Doe: "I know what you're going to say. I probably shouldn't have had the sausage, egg and cheese on a bagel."
Me: "Bingo. So what could you eat instead?"
John Doe: "I guess I should have oatmeal, and maybe some fruit."
Me: "Well there's a big step in the right direction!"
I cannot tell you how many conversations like this I've had over the years about food and exercise. We know what we're doing to ourselves, and most of us know how to change it. And in situations where additional warnings and information may be warranted, sure, I'm all for it; let's slap a warning label on soda, maybe even a picture of a diabetic amputee's leg -- whatever it takes. Education is key.
However, our crisis isn't simply one of education. As I said above, it's one of personal social responsibility. Type 2 diabetes, in which insidious sugar sources like soda play a big role, costs this country in excess of $174 billion each year. Most Type 2 diabetics know that their lifestyles are unhealthy but do not take adequate action to prevent or reverse the disease. And who pays for it? How would we react to a corporation that did the very same? (Note: This is NOT an attack on diabetics; I am merely illustrating a point.)
And my point is simply this: Drinking soda, or better stated, our right to drink soda, is actually good for us. Isn't that what makes America great? We're the land of free choice. However, when government takes an arbitrary legislative potshot at the symptom, not the cause, of a problem, how much better off are we? Do we want to be hobbled by government making lifestyle choices for us, or empowered by government teaching and supporting better choices? I for one would much rather see legislation making daily physical education and nutrition classes mandatory for our students, ingraining better lifestyles and choices. And I'd love to see the Big Gulp yanked -- not due to legislation, but due rather to poor sales from a healthy, educated consumer.
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