New York's sugary drink ban: Would it work in South LA?

June 5, 2012, 3:04 p.m.

A proposed New York ban would nix the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces (the size pictured above) in certain venues. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

There's a plan brewing in New York City that would turn Big Gulps into – well, just a gulp.

As the New York Times reports, in an effort to combat obesity, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration plans to ban the sale of large sugary drinks, including sodas, at restaurants, theaters and street carts.

It's a fairly far-reaching ban: It would affect nearly all of the sugary drinks in the city's many fast-food joints, delis and sports arenas. (That means sweetened iced teas and energy drinks, too.) The measure would nix the sale of anything larger than 16 fluid ounces, the size of a grande latte.

As the Times notes, that's "smaller than a common soda bottle."

There are exceptions, of course – diet sodas would escape the measure's grasp, as would dairy-based and alcoholic drinks; the beverage aisle at the grocery store would also be exempt.

This latest attempt by Bloomberg comes on the heels of a 2010 failed attempt by then-New York state Governor David Paterson to implement a statewide soda tax. That same year, Bloomberg also tried to make it so food stamps couldn't be used for soda and other sugary drinks, but that was vetoed by federal regulators.

"Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, 'Oh this is terrible,'" Bloomberg told the Times. "New York City is not about wringing your hands; it's about doing something."

But Loyola Law School professor Katie Pratt, who specializes in tax law, says the "something" he has in mind may not be enough. She pointed out that the law only applies to restaurants, which leaves convenience stores – and thus Big Gulps – unaffected.

This measure is in large part about portion size, which research shows has a profound effect on the amount people eat. "This proposal doesn't go as far as a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would go," said Pratt. "It's more a limited proposal, and in effect, it's just trying to reduce the marginal consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas."

Cutting down those portions is really what the proposed ban is doing, she explained. "If people want to have their soda, they can have that 16-ounce, and if they want to go back and buy another 16-ounce soda, they're free to do that," said Pratt. (Refills are not banned under the proposal.) "They just aren't going to get the so-called value."

The measure would be the first of its kind in America to combat obesity by altering portion sizes – and according to CBS, polls show that more than half of New Yorkers think Bloomberg's initiative is a bad idea. The same poll showed that 42 percent think it would be good health policy.

The companies that stand to lose revenue, of course, are also unhappy; in a statement, Coca-Cola said New Yorkers deserve better than the Bloomberg initiative, and McDonald's called the ban "narrowly-focused and misguided." (It also took its response to Twitter, tweeting to Bloomberg that the fast-food franchise "[trusts its] customers to make the choices that are best for them."

Pratt doesn't really like the proposed ban either, but her reasoning is different.

"Convenience stores, at least under the New York proposal, are treated like grocery stores," she said. "So I'm not sure how much good it does. And it looks highly paternalistic. I personally think attacks on sugar-sweetened sodas and, across the board, taxes, are a much better approach."

Pratt says she'd be in favor of a tax on junk food in general.

"But the revenue would have to be dedicated to dealing with diabetes and other illnesses caused by obesity," she said, calling to mind California's proposed tax on tobacco. "The benefits of such a tax would float disproportionately to communities of color, which are much more significantly impacted by obesity-related illness and diabetes, specifically."

South Los Angeles is one of those communities, with obesity and diabetes prevalence rates well above the county's average.

She's also in favor of federal regulators revisiting its allowing of food stamps to be used on soda, and increasing food stamp benefits so they can be used at the farmers market. (The weekly farmers market on Central Avenue does accept EBT.)

The law professor says she has an "activist mentality" about this issue because obesity is so destructive; if she could "wave a magic wand and get one thing to change to improve the health of Angelenos, it would be lose 15 percent of their body weight."

It should be noted that Bloomberg's ban has gotten plenty of high-profile support, including from First Lady Michelle Obama, who applauded Bloomberg's efforts to reduce obesity, although later she said she wasn't "specifically endorsing or condemning" the mayor's proposed ban.

"I'm not a food prude; I like everything," quipped Pratt. "I think people should be able to buy what they want to buy. But there are ways to slightly reduce caloric intake without a feeling of great sacrifice and deprivation. So I think that should be the goal."

But, she added, South L.A. suffers from a particular lack of access to healthy food, and that sort of situational pressure is the reason for the area's high rates of health problems. That kind of problem, she indicated, demands something more.

"Could [Los Angeles] have this 16-ounce law?" she said. "Well, I guess we could. But I don't think it'd be a very good idea and I don't think it'd accomplish all that much. I'd be in favor of something a little more radical."

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