Soda Ban Goes Too Far (2012 Jul)

by Barry A. Liebling

Mayor Bloomberg and his New York cohorts have garnered national attention recently when they proposed a law restricting sugary sodas in restaurants. If they have their way most establishments would be forbidden to sell non-diet soft drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces. The rationalization for the regulation is that too many New Yorkers are obese, that their consumption of “big gulp” or “super sized” servings of sugar-laden drinks is a contributing factor, and that it is entirely appropriate for the government to step in and do something about it.

The mayor and his accomplices argue that this is a sensible policy that does not restrict anyone’s freedom. If the law passes a consumer could easily buy as many 16 ounce servings as he pleases. The government action is merely a “gentle reminder” that large servings of sweet beverages are not healthy. Apparently, by the mayor’s lights, telling business owners what they cannot sell and consumers what they may not buy does not count as an incursion on freedom.

Of course, commentators on both sides of the controversial measure have not been shy to either applaud the mayor’s policy or denounce it. Supporters of the measure point out that rates of obesity have been going up for a long time. The government – they assert – has the right and responsibility to see that its property – that is, its citizens – are cared for properly. If the government fails to slow down the “obesity epidemic” now it will have to pay a lot more later when fat people become sick and require government-administered health care. Put another way – the government that administers health care owns the people who receive its services.

More than a few supporters of the mayor’s latest incursion into the private lives of New Yorker’s justify their attitude on esthetic grounds. It offends them to see large people drinking enormous portions of sweet soda, and it is about time someone puts a stop to it.

The negative reaction to the sugary soda law has been vigorous but the reasoning has sometimes been weak. Several restaurant and beverage associations have argued against the proposed law on the grounds that it will not be effective. They point out that obese people get most of their calories from foods and beverages other than sugary sodas. Therefore, the result of the new policy would do very little to slim down corpulent consumers. The Bloomberg crowd counters that they do not expect the new law to solve the problem completely, but it is a small step in the right direction.

Notice that the “it-will-not-work” retort to the soda law is self-defeating. Criticizing the presumed ineffectiveness of limiting soda size invites even more government action. Perhaps the city of New York also ought to limit portions of other drinks and foods. Perhaps a law should be written that will specify how many calories a consumer can purchase at a restaurant at one time. The real problem with the soda law is not how it will affect obesity but how it is an abrasive incursion into private lives.

A number of observers have grasped that the issue of freedom, not obesity, is the essential that makes the regulation of sweet soda unacceptable. Displaying a passion for personal autonomy, a few have said that while they do not ordinarily drink sugary sodas, their reaction to Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal is a desire to buy the largest soda they can find and slurp it down in angry defiance.

Several commentators have taken the “slippery-slope” tactic in criticizing the mayor’s new policy. They point out that New York already has bans against smoking in restaurants, forbids serving foods with trans fats, and requires restaurants with multiple locations to include detailed calorie information on menus. The soda regulation is going too far.

But how far is too far? What should be the limit on what the government can do with regard to food policy? The government should stick to its proper mission of protecting individual rights. This means forbidding the use of force or fraud. The implication is not only that the 16 once soda regulation should not be instituted, but also that the other meddlesome laws be repealed.

Imagine how the landscape would change if the city of New York respected freedom. Some restaurants would permit smoking on their premises, and others would remain non-smoking establishments. Since I do not like smoke I would continue to dine only where the air is clean.

In supermarkets many packaged foods boast that they have “no trans fats” on their labels. Restaurants could similarly report that they do not cook with trans fats, and customers would decide for themselves how important that is. There would undoubtedly be some people who prefer foods with trans-fats – even though the mayor disapproves.

Food establishments would have the option of listing calories on their menus or withholding this information. I would appreciate those eateries that voluntarily, without government coercion, decide to disclose calories. The government would have the task of assuring that all calorie claims are true.

Of course if busy-body food laws were abolished not everyone would be pleased. Those who yearn to meddle in the lives of others and pine for a strong government that micro-manages everything would suffer a setback. That would be sweet.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.