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Bloomberg defends soda ban plan: We're not taking away your freedoms

June 1, 2012 at 7:10 AM ET

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stood firmly by his plan for a first-in-the-nation ban on large servings of soda and sugary drinks to fight obesity on Friday – even as the city celebrated National Doughnut Day.

“It doesn’t sound ridiculous,” the mayor told TODAY’s Matt Lauer. “In moderation, most things are OK.”

Bloomberg’s proposal would prohibit the sale of soda and other sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces that are sold in restaurants, movies theaters, at food carts and ball parks.

While some called the plan a governmental overreach, others applauded the effort to combat obesity. Bloomberg said nobody would be deprived of the right to drink soda.

Vote: Will a ban on big sizes of sugary drinks curb obesity?

“We’re not banning you from getting the stuff,” he said on TODAY. “It’s just if you want 32 ounces, the restaurant has to serve it in two glasses. That’s not exactly taking away your freedoms. It’s not something the Founding Fathers fought for.

“And all the studies show if the glass or the plate in front of you is smaller, you’ll eat less,” the mayor said.

EPA/JUSTIN LANE /
A woman holds a large soda on a street in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to implement a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts. The law is another effort by the administration to fight obesity.

Around the city, reaction has ranged from sweet celebration to frothy anger. In the backwash of Bloomberg’s other municipal health crackdowns – namely public-smoking suppressions and calorie count postings at chain restaurants – some New Yorkers and even some obesity fighters say the mayor’s anti-soda push exceeds what city governments are designed to do.

“I consider myself to be fit and healthy, and I love large sodas!” said Christopher Potter, 48, a mortgage broker who lives and works in New York. His favorite is regular Pepsi and he downs at least one 16-ounce soda per day.

“I go to the gym daily (and) run. I’m not fat. I think this proposed ban is a huge infringement on my rights. I always get the large soda at the movies and drink what I like," Potter said. 

Health experts largely praised the move to stop sales of sugared drinks served in containers of more than 16 fluid ounces. 

"I actually support the ban," said Joy Bauer, registered dietitian and health expert for NBC's TODAY. "It’s a good compromise because the law wouldn’t completely take away these sugary drinks, but it limits portions and forces people to think twice before drinking more – by buying a second beverage."

Her support was echoed by New Yorker Alicia Gay, who works near the city's financial district: 

"When I heard the news, I felt like Etta James – 'At Last,'" said Gay, 32. "People have long applauded the mayor's decision to ban smoking in public. And, as a former smoker, I kept thinking: Why is smoking the only costly, life-threatening behavior being punished when obesity represents a health epidemic in this country? It's crazy that parents can buy their kids these drinks with hundreds of calories with zero regard for the health implications and the potential impact that can have."

On TODAY, Bloomberg said New York City has reduced the rate of childhood obesity by about 5 percent in recent years, and the city’s life expectancy is three years greater than the national average.

The supersize soda ban, he said, would also improve people’s lives.

“In the case of full-sugared drinks, in moderation it’s fine, and all we’re trying to do is to explain to people that if you drink a little bit less you will live longer,” Bloomberg said.

In a TODAY.com poll that got more than 25,000 responses, the vast majority said Bloomberg’s ban would not curb obesity.

 When told the results, Bloomberg, who previously moved to ban smoking in New York City restaurants, parks and beaches, said such skepticism sounded familiar.

“Where did I hear this before?” Bloomberg said. “Wasn’t it [that] smoking wasn’t going to work? Today it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. Deaths from smoking dramatically coming down across the country, virtually every major city has adopted the smoking ordinances.”

While Bloomberg's plan "has been drawing a lot of snickering and quite a bit of anger," University of Pennsylvania's bioethicist Art Caplan says the NYC mayor has science on his side.

"Studies show that portion size is a big contributor to the obesity epidemic overwhelming America," says msnbc.com contributor Caplan, Ph.D., who cheers Bloomberg's effort to draw attention to the causes of obesity.  "That said, the effort to get people not to drink soda in bucket size containers is more symbolic then anything else."

The soda proposal, which is likely to win approval from the city’s Board of Health, could take effect in March. It would not apply to water, diet soda, coffee drinks, dairy-based beverages like milk or milkshakes, fruit and vegetable juice and alcoholic beverages. Grocery and convenience stores would be exempt. Violators would face $200 fines.

Two years ago, Harvard scientists found that taxing soda, albeit in a different way, does cut consumption. When researchers placed a temporary, penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks sold at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, sales fell by 26 percent.

Via his own website, however, Bloomberg cited separate studies that “have shown what common sense already tells us: When larger portions are in front of people, they simply consume more, often without recognizing it.” In one study, he said, people who were were given sugary drink portion sizes 50 percent larger drank 20 percent to 33 percent more, without reducing their food intake.

Not everyone's a fan. "Bans are an unfair as they treat everyone the same with a 'one-size-fits-all approach,'" said Hank Cardello, a former Coca-Cola executive. Today, he heads the obesity solutions initiative at the Hudson Institute, nonpartisan,  Washington, D.C., policy research organization that says it promotes global security, prosperity and freedom.  

Cardello cited research by the Hudson Institute that shows 25 percent to 30 percent of American consumers pursue healthy lifestyles. "Bluntly, bans are unfair to them as they act responsibly and do not contribute to the $150 billion annual cost of obesity," he said.

"What’s needed now is an incentive for food and beverage companies to more aggressively lower the number of calories they sell," Cardello added. "Given the trillions of beverage calories sold each year, an incentive for lowering a company’s 'calorie footprint' by 2 to 3 percent would go a long way to pulling excess calories off the streets. This can be achieved by providing an extra 10 percent tax deduction to those companies achieving this goal." 

Bioethicist Caplan's concern is the focus on portion sizes suggests the solution to obesity comes down to simple choice. "It doesn't and it is going to take a real serious effort to shift a society that is addicted to fattening foods at the dinner table and on the farm to lose weight."

Updated: On Friday afternoon, a Coca-Cola Co. spokesperson responded to Bloomberg's proposal: “The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes. We are transparent with our consumers," the statement read. "They can see exactly how many calories are in every beverage we serve. We have prominently placed calorie counts on the front of our bottles and cans and in New York City, restaurants already post the calorie content of all their offerings and portion sizes -- including soft drinks."

Original: The potential soda crackdown is encouraging to groups that have long lobbied against the soda scourge. The American Heart Association, for instance, urges Americans to sip no more than 450 calories of sugar-sweetened beverages -- or fewer than three 12-ounce cans of carbonated soda -- per week. 

But like residents of the Big Apple, even the AHA needs more details, said Julie Del Barto, a spokeswoman for the group. 

"The American Heart Association is very concerned with the rising rates of obesity," she said in a statement. "We look forward to reviewing Mayor Bloomberg's specific proposal, which we understand won't be available until the June 12th hearing."

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