"New York City is not about wringing your hands; it's about doing something."
That's what Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last Wednesday while introducing the city's plan to cap serving sizes of sugary drinks at 16 ounces. My first thought was, "That's true, and I am so proud to have grown up as a New Yorker. This regulation is a vital step in improving health for our families and communities."
The regulation would prohibit restaurants and takeout establishments from selling more than 16 ounces of sugar sweetened beverages in a single serving and limit container size to 16 ounces. Predictably, the food and beverage industry is up in arms, throwing around the usual terms ("health cops," "nanny state," etc.). As someone who has spent decades fighting for policies that keep people healthy and safe in the first place, I've heard it all before. We heard the same complaints when we took the lead out of paint and gasoline and when we took smoking out of the workplace. Changing norms can feel jarring, but it saves lives. When was the last time you heard someone musing out loud about how they miss lead paint or smoking in the office?
The food and beverage industry is right to be worried about these developments. It is no longer a secret that their interests lie in profits over health. As Director of an organization that has examined how intensively food is marketed to children and how foods the industry claims are "better for you" are frequently junk food in disguise, I have a hard time taking seriously the industry's claims that they care about health. That's why I named our two minute video that exposes deceptive food and beverage marketing to children We're Not Buying It. The fact is, we need to change norms around food and beverages, and efforts like the one taken by New York City are a step in the right direction. Growing up in Brooklyn, when my brother wanted to buy a soda from the candy store, it came in a small 6 ½ ounce bottle. Today, those bottles hold 20 ounces or more and contain more than three times as many calories. The average American 12-year-old would have to run four miles just to burn off that one soda.
But just as norms have changed for the worst over the past decades, this is the generation that is going to turn back the clock towards health. As I learned from my talks with the tobacco industry as I helped develop the nation's first multi-city tobacco laws, creating healthier norms happens one step at a time--and after each step the next comes ever faster. New York City is far from alone in trying to improve the food environment, and that is exactly what industry is afraid of. The tide has turned against soda. Study after study is coming out showing the harm that overconsumption of these products causes to both our health and the fiscal stability of our healthcare systems. Cities like Richmond, CA are exploring how taxing soda can help counter the powerful marketing of the beverage industry. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest is convening a National Soda Summit in Washington, D.C. on June 7 to build further momentum on these issues.
This is a battle over who gets to shape our food environment and the health of our children. New York City's leadership will inspire hope -- and future action -- in places where the political will to make these sorts of common sense changes does not yet exist. It protects the health of New Yorkers and builds momentum for the rest of us.