06/19/2012 05:19 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Super-sized Opposition?

New York City Mayor Bloomberg's plan to restrict sales of large containers of soda was met with immediate cries of "Nanny State-ism." But opinion formation on this matter is subtle and arguably in flux. That the "ban" of larger-sized (16-plus ounces) sweetened drinks would still be permitted in supermarkets and convenience stores is irrelevant to those who are troubled about the role any government official (mayor, legislator, chief executive, judge) plays in any personal decision. If freedom is a paramount absolute, then restrictions on it are by definition wrong -- absolutely and unquestionably.

For even the most dedicated libertarians, limitations on freedom are justifiably problematic. But data show that most of us do not fall into this camp. We are leery of freedom limitations, but not always alarmed by them. For example, I cannot purchase alcohol in Savannah, Ga., before noon on Sunday. While I would prefer market forces to allow me the option to purchase at 11 a.m., I shrug my shoulders and live accordingly. I would prefer to be allowed not to remove my footwear when boarding an aircraft. But in the name of homeland security, I remove my shoes, walk through the security line sans footwear, re-lace, and find my gate. Life abounds with similar examples.

However Operation Small Gulp was denounced quickly. Jon Stewart humorously called it "draconian government overreach." Soon thereafter, we were reading polls, affirming collective opposition to the ostensible overreach. A Rasmussen Poll proclaims that "63% Oppose 'Sin Taxes' on Junk Food and Soda." But the sin tax question is the ninth of nine questions; it follows eight questions about soft drinks and carbonated beverages.

A Marist Poll press release also reveals citizens' opposition to Mayor Bloomberg's proposal, as it reads, "Put Sugary Drink Ban on Ice...Ban Goes Too Far, Says Majority." Here, the problem is not question ordering, but wording, as Marist's key question is dubiously phrased:

Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces including energy drinks and iced teas. You would still be able to get refills or buy more than one serving and be able to get diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy drinks, alcoholic beverages, or any drinks sold in a grocery or convenience store. Do you think the proposal to ban sugary drinks is a good or a bad idea?

The second sentence is a run-on mouthful (note the three "or"s and one "and"). Alcoholic beverages and dairy drinks are irrelevant, unless the respondent was pondering if her Jack and Coke or White Russian were in jeopardy. (Does anyone drink a 16-plus ounce serving of Kahlua?). The last part of the second sentence is factually correct, but it raises the legitimate, unanswered question of where the ban applies. To the respondent, this may generate confusion or uncertainty. Finally, the whole paragraph is replete with negative words and phrases ('ban' [twice], 'still,' 'able to get,' 'bad'), arguably fostering a negativity bias against the proposal.

It is quite possible that the mayor's office recently has conducted surveys, and it is also quite conceivable that they did not. Regardless, most journalists and interpreters of news, namely, the pundits and scholars asked to comment about this public policy initiative, probably have not seen soda-related surveys beyond the two mentioned above. I suspect (yes, I am speculating) that future poll questions will vary greatly -- by question wording, ordering and framing. Would one describe the policy as a ban or a limit? Would one include that the larger beverage would be available at certain locales but not others (i.e., a ban at certain locales)? Would you include 16-plus ounces in the question, or describe it simply as large? How about asking people to gauge what a 16 ounce (or larger) cup looks like?

The role of government in individuals' lives is endemic to the democratic experiment and democratic discourse. It is about soda sales, health care, obesity, the market place and freedom. These topics overlap and arguably conflict with one another.

As advocacy and interest groups clamoring for the public's attention, pundits should proceed with caution. Op-eds and other forms of public opinion expression and persuasion are now shifting, confirming and codifying the public's attitudes about the many topics this proposal addresses.

That Mayor Bloomberg's initiative is unpopular in certain, vocal quarters is unquestionable. How unpopular, and among whom, remains an unsolved public opinion puzzle.

Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts and the associate vice president for academic services at the Savannah College of Art and Design.