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Has Mayor Bloomberg Outsmarted the Beverage Industry?

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Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a gutsy guy. Thwarted twice in his efforts to cut sugary drink consumption (the mayor supported, unsuccessfully, a New York state tax on sugary drinks and a New York City proposal to restrict the use of food stamps to buy sugary beverages), Bloomberg has come up with a new, controversial plan. And this time, the deep-pocketed, politically powerful soda industry may not be able to derail the measure.

Bloomberg proposes to amend New York City Health Code to establish a maximum size of 16 ounces for sugary drinks offered or sold in restaurants, theaters, stadiums, delis and food carts. The proposal would apply to fountain drinks (including self-service cups) as well as to those sold in bottles or cans. Sugary drinks are defined in the proposal as beverages that have added sugar, contain less than 51% milk or milk substitute by volume and have more than 25 calories per 8 fluid ounces.

The mayor's proposal to limit the size of sugary drinks is right on target. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average size of a fast-food soda is six times larger than a soda 60 years ago. Studies have confirmed that sugary drinks are a big driver of the obesity epidemic because of the way our bodies process them. They are non-nutritious, fail to create a sensation of fullness and therefore can stealthily add hundreds of additional calories each day. Americans consume 200-300 more calories daily than 30 years ago, with the largest single increase due to sugary drinks, according to a 2005 study in the Annual Review of Public Health. Numerous studies have linked sugary drink consumption with long-term weight gain as well as an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. In New York City, thousands of deaths each year and close to $4 billion in direct medical costs are due to obesity.

The soft drink industry is in a full-blown panic over this proposal because the measure requires only the approval of the New York City Board of Health. And whatayaknow, the board's chairman is New York City's health commissioner Thomas Farley, who strongly supports the measure, while all other board members are Bloomberg appointees. Unlike elected legislators dependent on campaign contributions and public opinion, the beverage industry's threats, manipulations and deep pockets will hold little sway over the Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health.

Of course, history tells us that Big Beverage will fight tooth and nail to try to kill the portion cap. Already, some New York state politicians, who no doubt receive generous donations from the soft drink industry, are promising to introduce legislation that will prohibit Bloomberg's measure. You can be sure that there will be lawsuits and that industry will take to the airwaves to enlist the public in protesting the measure.

In 2010, the American Beverage Association spent close to $13 million in New York in a six-month period, lobbying against a proposed penny-per-ounce statewide soda tax. No expense was spared, from the brilliant anti-soda tax TV campaign (created by the agency that spawned the notorious Harry and Louise anti-healthcare reform ads in 1993), to soft-drink industry worker protests (while workers were on the clock and provided with lunch), to an industry-sponsored 'grassroots' coalition called 'New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes,' to PepsiCo's threat to move its Purchase, New York, headquarters to Texas, if the measure passed. The no-holds barred campaign did the trick. State legislators caved and the measure died.

But this time around, Mayor Bloomberg has ensured that his sugary drink portion cap won't be so easy to kill. And it already has the country talking, initiating a national discussion about sugary drink portion sizes, obesity and how far government should go to protect the health of its citizens and the health of our fragile economy.

Cutting portion sizes to reduce food or drink consumption makes sense because research has consistently shown it works -- far better than education or depending on "personal responsibility." As noted by Sarah Kiff in the Washington Post, a 2005 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that movie patrons who were given a large, rather than a medium-sized container of two-week old popcorn, ate 34 percent more popcorn, even though it was stale.

A recent study in Belgium, published in the May 2012 Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, found that children offered cookies split in half consumed 25 percent less than children offered the exact same amount of cookies served whole. Noted Cornell University researcher, Brian Wansink, PhD, has suggested that not only do oversized portions create our consumption norms but that even people trained in nutrition underestimate the calories in large portion sizes.

Let's be realistic. Education alone has been a miserable failure, neither halting nor reversing the nation's deadly rate of obesity. Industry holds the upper hand, manipulating the amount of food and drink people consume through portion sizes and marketing, as well as setting consumption norms that are not compatible with healthy living. Anyone who believes they are capable of exercising personal responsibility for what they eat in the face of supersizing, industry marketing and hard-to-resist combinations of flavors and sensations that make certain less than nutritious foods/drinks irresistible, is fooling him/herself. Does anyone really think the soft drink industry spends billions yearly on marketing because it doesn't strongly influence consumer choice?

It takes a bold leader to introduce a controversial proposal like a soft drink portion cap -- a measure that Mayor Bloomberg knew would not be popular with the public and would incite the wrath of fellow politicians and the powerful beverage industry. Consumers need more help than nutrition education and being told to take "personal responsibility" for making the right choices. Bloomberg has come up with a worthy plan that deserves to be implemented.

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