Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Ban: Misdirected and Short-Sighted

This post originally appeared on NY Carib News.

There's an old proverb that goes something like this: "Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you'll feed him for a lifetime."

That's a pearl of wisdom that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg might consider in light of the proposed regulation he pushed forward, in partnership with the New York City Department of Health, which will restrict the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in packages or cups larger than 16 ounces.

I believe the mayor's heart is in the right place, but this decision is neither prudent nor helpful in the overall fight against obesity. The proposal is ineffective in that it does not get to the root of the problem of obesity in New York or in the African-American community. A real solution would address issues like access to healthier foods particularly in the food deserts that exist in low-income neighborhoods. It would consider the need to educate, rather than dictate, how to make positive choices about health, nutrition and exercise.

Furthermore it is wrong to assume, as this proposal seemingly does, that given the proper education and tools, people are incapable of making these decisions for themselves. I strongly object to the imposition on personal freedom suggested by this ban.

The proposal is arbitrary in the types of businesses that it impacts: corner bodegas, movie theaters and restaurants will be prohibited from selling these beverages while grocery and convenience stores will not.

And for all of those reasons, it risks disproportionately impacting the people who can least afford it. People who frequent corner markets and not gourmet stores. Given the many significant issues faced by our community, the time and resources of this great city can be put to much better use than by offering up a misdirected solution to the growing problem of obesity.

Believe me, I understand the health crisis that plagues our nation. In fact, the obesity rates for African Americans who are 20 years of age and older is more than 38 percent for men -- about 10 percent above the national average -- while more than 54 percent of the women in our community are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is indeed tragic. The real reason for obesity is obvious: people consume more calories than they burn. An edict limiting the sizes of sugared soft drinks does not address this central fact.

At the NAACP, we've decided to tackle the obesity crisis in a holistic way through Project HELP (Healthy Eating, Lifestyles, and Physical Activity), which is designed to improve the overall quality of life for African Americans through health education. Project HELP educates participants on the risk factors that lead to chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. It also develops community health ambassadors to build healthier environments for families.

We follow this approach because we know that to truly affect change in our community -- in any community -- decisions cannot be passed down from bureaucrats on-high. Change must come from, and speak to, the heart of the community. What people eat and what people drink is an incredibly important and vibrant part of any culture's sense of self and identity, connecting people and families across time and distance.

Given the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and other health issues, now more than ever we must learn new ways to create cultural connections, new traditions, and new habits. It's imperative that any solution acknowledges the incredible complexity of these issues. All of the puzzle pieces must fit into place in order to tip the scales one way or another. It's simply unrealistic to look at one piece of the puzzle in isolation, as this proposal does.

Rather, I believe that it's going to take all of us -- business, government, society, nonprofits, individuals -- working together to solve our obesity challenge. And we need more holistic programs like Project HELP, not a narrowly focused, short-sighted ban that won't work.

People shouldn't be overpowered with regulations and restrictions that the government deems best for them. Instead, let's empower people with the education and opportunities they can use to take control of their own health and well-being. Let's take this opportunity to teach them to fish.

I hope Mayor Bloomberg will join the NAACP to encourage our citizens to get active, get knowledgeable, and get healthy.

Disclosure: The NAACP's Project Help, an intergenerational approach to Health and Wellness for the African American community, receives support from the Coca Cola Foundation.