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Why the Soda Ban Won't Work

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There are few who would criticize Mayor Bloomberg for working towards the goal of a healthier New York. Unfortunately, there are many who would criticize Mayor Bloomberg for seeking to achieve that goal the wrong way. In fact, most New Yorkers think the so-called "soda ban"-- which would prohibit the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages over 16 ounces by most food establishments -- is a bad idea.

Although we stand with Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to support New Yorkers in making healthy food choices, and recognize the city's outrageous rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes -- especially among communities of color -- we remain deeply concerned about the proposal for the following reasons:

a. the ban, if implemented, will yield an adverse economic impact for small businesses and may result in job losses; and
b. the ban would harm producers that ship soda-syrup and cups across state lines into New York, possibly violating the federal commerce clause; and
c. the ban infringes on the civil liberties (choice) of New Yorkers, and may be overturned

And choice very much matters. In 2011, federal officials rejected Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to bar the city's food stamp users from buying soda and other high-sugar drinks. This proposal, if passed, might also be struck down.

For a ban meant to address health in low-income communities, it was particularly concerning to us that it was brought forth during a time when the city was considering cuts to minority health programs. And scratching the surface of the proposal, we believe the ban does not consider the complexity of how and why people acquire food and drink, and instead applies a simplified solution to a layered problem (one highly likely to fall short of its intended goal). For instance, the ban would exempt drinks over 16 ounces that contained over 50 percent milk. This would include drinks like a 24 fl. oz. serving of a certain corporation's popular blended crème caffeinated beverage, a drink that is roughly 470 calories -- equivalent to the amount of calories in a medium 10-ounce steak. Yet it would ban a single-serving of soda, juice, enhanced water beverage, tea, coffee or sports drink of equivalent size if purchased from certain establishments.

It's also important to look at where people acquire such large drinks. The average New Yorker goes to the movie theater (known for large single-servings of beverages) only four times a year, and attends sports venues even less regularly. Daily trips to the neighborhood deli store (or 'bodega') are much more common occurrences. Such neighborhood stores selling over 50 percent food products fall under the jurisdiction of the City's Department of Health, and therefore would be limited by the ban. Those selling under 50 percent food products would be exempt from the ban. This effectively means that two stores on the same block might very well be held to different standards. In fact, some major chain stores would be exempted by this same standard.

This kind of arbitrary standard is what leads us to believe that the proposal -- if passed -- would not only be ineffective, but also harmful to small local businesses, specifically those servicing low-income communities.

Most importantly, we simply feel that the administration should shift focus towards the much more difficult goal of creating programs to subsidize healthy food access, including implementing the recommendations outlined in the 2009 New York City Council report 'FoodWorks: A Vision to Improve NYC's Food System.' The real issue at hand, in our opinion, is access to low-cost, quality healthy food across this city. We need to do even more to bring comprehensive food-access programs to local communities.

While community-based food advocacy coalitions have taken on the daunting task of developing and supporting localized community-supported agriculture (CSAs), food cooperatives, farmers markets, and school-based food networks, the city makes it increasingly difficult for local communities to establish and maintain neighborhood gardens (a major source of localized food growth), under the fear of them becoming permanent institutions that would be difficult to displace. If the administration is truly interested in getting New Yorkers outdoors, there should be appropriate funding put towards the rehabilitation of outdoor parks and playgrounds, as well as indoor recreational spaces, to encourage New Yorkers (many of whom cannot afford a gym membership) to exercise.

A ban is easy, establishing real solutions in the long term is much more difficult. And frankly we believe moving towards any of these goals would have a greater impact on public health than a beverage ban that might hurt small businesses, would be arbitrarily applied, and may very well be illegal. When Mayor Bloomberg proposes more real solutions (like this) to our public health problems, we will be standing right behind him. But the soda ban is simply bad for New York.
The deadline for public comment on the soda ban is July 24, 2012.