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

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.