Opinion: Big Soda, Good Government and the Nanny State Lie

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 - 02:48 PM

(Stephen Reader/WNYC)

The "soda ban"—or, more accurately, the portion limit on excessively sugary and unhealthy commercial beverages—is easy to ridicule.

In a city of big issues—poverty, education reform, police-community relations—it feels like a small one. In the landscape of public health, it seems a lopsided solution when recreation, parks and physical education remain underfunded. Even as an attempt to target soda itself, the city would seem to have other tools—its subway ads promoting the caloric count of sodas are particularly memorable—without resorting to a seemingly arbitrary ounce count. 

However, the fact that a mayor known for being strong on public health has chosen to pursue this particular restriction says a lot about the limited options public officials have when responding to public threats. And the push-back against the soda ban says as much about the questionable motivations and tactics of the industry that wants to defend the status quo.

It's easy to deride a soda ban as "nanny state" policy. Let's start by dismissing that phrase. Is our military a "Nanny Army"? Are our fire departments "Nanny Firefighters" when they demand certain safety precautions in public accommodations? Is our legal system "Nanny Justice" for cracking down on consumer fraud and other deceptive business practices? I don't know about you, but I've never called a bartender a "Nanny Bouncer" for turning someone away who has had too much to drink.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be protected from harms, to invest in guards—whether they are people, physical structures or policies—that turn back danger. To dismiss all of it as "nanny state" policies is an absurd attempt to demean an entire argument.

Two good guidelines for us to do our best in finding the right balance are: first, does the risk assumed by an individual potentially harm or cost society; and second, is the individual assuming the risk being deceived about the potential danger.

There is reason to believe that like smokers who were, for many years, manipulated into addiction and consumption by a mixture of chemicals, marketing, easy availability and outright deception, soda drinkers are also the victim of concerted efforts to sell them more and more soda without regard to their health.

Just look at some of the disingenuous lengths the soda industry has gone to in order to convince the public that the size restrictions are bad policy. From the Christian Science Monitor:

Canvassers wearing “I picked out my beverage all by myself” have been collecting signatures opposed to the proposal in all five boroughs. A plane flew by the Coney Island and Rockaways beaches on July 4 and the weekend after with a banner that read, “NO DRINK 4 U!”

Like other effective lobbying groups, Big Soda won't go away on its own, and it won't change its habits unless it has to. Its deep pockets and broad reach make it difficult for legislatures to challenge them, which is why we may need executive and administrative decision-making of the flavor pushed by Bloomberg's Department of Health. It's not the ideal approach, but it isn't a meaningless one. It should be coupled with education, with recreational opportunities, with healthy alternatives—but just because it is a limited approach doesn't make it a wrong approach.

It would be naive to pretend Americans are making consumption choices purely on their own. There is a lopsided power relationship between the soda industry and their consumers, just as there was between mortgage lenders pushing sub-prime mortgages and homeowners who took them. Maybe we excessively trust industries and professionals to offer us honest assessments and reasonable products, but then we need some safeguards to ensure that trust isn't betrayed.

The beverage lobby efforts against the soda ban, from their astroturf campaigns to their disingenuous and distracting subway ads to their promotion of industry-backed studies, has had the impact of strengthening my support for the Bloomberg Administration. The efforts have reminded me that the soda companies are like so many other industries that play a counter-productive role in our society. Soda's counter-campaign has precedent: look at steps taken by Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, Big Finance and Big Oil.  Public good wasn't and isn't in their interest—so it has to be somebody else's.

There are people I like and trust who think the ban is bad policy, and I'm willing to hear them out. But let's not get rid of it because it's limited; let's not just settle for it. Let's not trust the soda industries who have been busy reminding us they aren't worth our public trust.  And let's not let it all get grouped in as "nanny state" activities, a dishonest and, understandably objectionable, bit of rhetoric.. I, for one, would rather have some defenses on my side against all attacks, be they foreign, domestic, or carbonated.


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Comments [11]

nick from Pittsburgh

I'm sorry, but I just have to disagree with you very strongly.

They are setting a dangerous precedent. This isn't about soda, this is about free people taking responsibility for their own lives. I personally don't drink soda at all, but that is irrelevant to this issue.

Do you really think they will stop there if we allow our overlords to treat us like serfs? New Yorkers clearly do not want this legislation, however representing the people is a meaningless concept to politicians in 2013.

What's next, mandatory jogging and broccoli consumption?

We will be forced to purchase soylent green from approved FDA grocers by 2050.

In reality this will have the opposite effect that you want, as most government policies do. This ban on large size beverages will create a counter movement and you will see an huge increase in soda consumption leading up to and even following the ban. Drinking large sodas will, still legally available at markets will be a political statement in NYC. Just as banning drugs increases consumption so this will follow suite.,8599,1893946,00.html

Feb. 27 2013 11:36 PM
Et al from ny


Thanks for the advice. I would love to do that--however movie theaters do not allow outside food and beverages.

What makes HFCS bad is the excess amounts of fructose. It is however an L-isomer, so our enzymes do break it down-there's just a ton of it. When consumed regularly and in excess, it is bad. In small amounts, it is fine.

It should not be a part of the daily diet.

Aug. 08 2012 11:43 AM
Kieth from Marine Pk

I suggest to Et al:
If you're really that concerned with saving that dollar (although you're buying movie tickets to begin with), bring your own liter bottle of your favorite beverage with you. Supermarkets have a wider variety of soft drinks (as well as heather beverages), and have MUCH lower prices than a concession stand. In fact, a 2-liter bottle would still be cheaper. You would be helping the environment if you brought in a deposit bottle and returned it to the store. Although you're in good shape now, HFCS can have it's tool over time. Some supermarkets even carry kosher versions of the popular soft drinks, which cinemas don’t--a concern to some vegetarians.

Aug. 06 2012 12:51 AM

They have truck banners that read "DON’T LET BUREAUCRATS TELL YOU NOT TO SMOKE CRACK"... because everyone in New York knows what's best for them.

Aug. 06 2012 12:24 AM
Et al from

When my girlfriend and I go to see a movie, we will often buy one large (or x large, w/e) size and share it between us. It costs less for us and also creates less waste for the environment.

Now we may have to buy two sodas, spend more money, and double our amount of contributing waste.

We are both vegetarians and are in great health. If when we go out we want to buy a certain size of soda that a business feels like offering, I don't see anything wrong with that.

Jul. 30 2012 06:54 AM
DSound from NY

We should also prohibit the sale of alcohol as it's unhealthy as well.....wait a minute....oh yeah, we did that before. Great policy!

Invest in education. Citizens should be making the conclusion based on their knowledge of health. And if they don't want to, you can't force em.

Jul. 29 2012 11:00 PM
rolf niebergall from New York

all hydrocarbons ( bread, corn and so on, of course sugar )become sugar. it is not good for us. Should the government stay out of protection for us and not act? Should we have the freedom to poison us self ? Ask a Md what is good and not good for us and than make a decision ! Mr Bloomberg made the decision after talking to his health department. why do you not talk to your health department!

Jul. 27 2012 12:43 PM
RBC from NYC

Doesn't anyone understand that the large soda ban isn't banning large sodas??? Its just restricting where you can buy large sodas.

You won't be able to buy a soda over 16 ounces at any establishment that is graded by the health department - like restaurants, movie theaters, delis. BUT if an establishment is not graded by the health department - like bodegas, supermarkets, drug stores - you will still be able to buy a large soda! If this proposal takes effect, you will still be able to buy a Big Gulp from 7-Eleven because that retail store is not graded by the health department. Also, you will still be able to buy whatever size Diet Soda you like because Diet Sodas aren't included in the ban! This is why this ban is silly.

Jul. 26 2012 09:42 AM
Carol Nelson from New York

'Don't let bureaucrats tell you what size soda to buy". Fair enough. But can anyone explain why, in the name of sensibile decision-making and healthy choices, does anyone need to guzzle those obscene-sized cannisters of sugar-filled showers? It is no longer a matter of personal choice when people make themselves sick with their highly unhealthy dietary habits, and the rest of us are stuck with the huge medical bills when they become obese and diabetic. If they need to be drinking that much liquid, perhaps they ought to be ingesting more water. Perhaps a warning on the labels of those drinks about the dangers of ingesting 50 teaspoons of sugar per pop may be a starting alternative. Those users have become addicted to sugar and do not realize it.

Jul. 26 2012 07:20 AM

Its amazing how we are trusted to vote for politicians with unprecedented power over us but not trusted to choose what food to consume for ourselves.

We are not supposed to trust the free market or our own judgement but we must trust more government bureaucrats with state regulatory power because somehow the public good is in their interest despite regular evidence to the contrary.

Jul. 25 2012 04:13 PM
David Corbin from Omaha, Nebraska

Nanny state can be used by more than one side.
"Some might complain that I am urging the use of “propaganda” to manipulate people, or that I am trying to turn society into the “nanny” that nags people about proper behavior. But the people of the world are already being inundated by propaganda and by the nagging of a nanny—except the propaganda and the nagging come from the corporate profit-makers, whose only motive in spending huge sums of money is to cajole consumers into providing them with even bigger profits. We need a parallel voice to provide at least a semblance of balance."--Muhammad Yunus, Creating a World Without Poverty

Jul. 25 2012 04:05 PM

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