If Soda Sizes Shrink, Will Waistlines, Too?

An NYU researcher surveys habits of thousands of consumers now for later follow-up.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mayor Michael Bloomberg could soon be able to test his latest health hypothesis. New York City on Tuesday is set to become the first place in the country to limit the size of sodas and other sugary beverages in certain retail settings.

Whether it happens, and when, could be affected by a federal judge, who is expected to rule soon on a legal challenge to the city’s regulations. Opponents have argued that the Board of Health, a panel appointed by the mayor, does not have the authority to impose such a change without consulting the City Council and creating a new law.

No jurisdiction has ever tried to cap portion size (though there are a variety of different taxes on soft drinks around the country).  Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley are hoping that once 16 ounces – which used to be a “large” in many settings – is restored, drinkers will cut calories and, ideally, either lose weight or slow down the rate they gain it.

“Portion sizes establish a default for people, and many people focus on other things and simply consume whatever’s the default,” Farley said last spring, when the new rule was announced. 

The impact of the policy, if there is one, may take years to become apparent. Perhaps surprisingly, the Health Department has no specific plans to study its effects. Dr. Susan Kansagra, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Chronic Disease and Tobacco Control, says the Department will ask about soda consumption as part of its annual Community Health Survey — which poses some 125 questions on a wide range of issues to about 10,000 local residents.

Dr. Brian Elbel, who has previously studied the influence of the city’s calorie posting initiative on consumer behavior, has received $1.8 million from the National Institutes of Health and the New York State Health Foundation to look at what happens, once the big beverage ban takes effect.

In order to do that, Elbel and his research teams have spent the last three months conducting surveys at fast food restaurants throughout the region. They’re looking at 24 sites in New York City, and 24 in Newark and Jersey City, N.J. They’re creating a baseline for a four-year study that looks not only at consumer behavior, but at what retailers do, too.

Canvassers collect receipts from people going to Subway, McDonald’s and Burger King. Consumers answer a few dozen questions about their purchases and habits and get $2 for their time. Some who are willing to be called will get 15-minute surveys and $10. There will be another round of surveys three months after the rule takes effect, and then at six-month intervals through January, 2017. Elbel hopes to get 3,000-4,000 respondents each round.

Much will hinge on how Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Snapple and others price their 16-ounce-maximum drinks. People can buy as many servings as they want – proof, Bloomberg and Farley say, that it really isn’t a “ban” — and so if manufacturers, distributors or retailers set the price low enough, people could “double-down,” as Elbel put it, and get 32 ounces at a time.

“I think you can imagine the industry does one thing. Consumers respond one way. The industry responds again. Consumers respond again. And so on,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a little bit cyclic in how people respond to this.”

In his earlier research  on the effectiveness of the city’s calorie posting policy, Elbel collected some data on consumers’ soda choices. He didn’t focus on this, but his findings could provide clues to what his more detailed series of surveys will uncover. He found that almost two out of three beverages purchased at the chain restaurants he surveyed were, in fact, larger than 16 ounces. Getting those drinks down to pint-size would reduce consumers’ caloric intake by 60 calories, on average

In a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet — which is pretty healthy — that’s a 3 percent drop. And many people eat 3,000 or 4,000 calories or more a day.

I asked Elbel if he thought trimming 60 calories made that much of a difference in the overall scheme of things.

“We’re never going to find a silver bullet — it’s going to be a combination of things,” he said, echoing many public health experts. “So let’s work on finding four or five 60-calorie solutions, and see if we can put those together to come up with more meaningful changes to obesity.”

But it will fall to others to propose more "60-calorie solutions."

Elbel's job is to measure the impact of public policy, and the only way to do that is to examine one initiative — and one consumer — at a time.


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Comments [7]

elysecohen from new jersey

I think soda is bad for you. I try not to drink it but sometimes I drink a small coke. Soda is disgusting...there are so many other things to drink and it is making our country obese. Drink water, coffee, tea, milk, wine, etc
Europeans don't drink 1/2 as much soda as Americans do. It's full of sugar.

Mar. 11 2013 05:19 PM

It won't affect me personally because most of the soda drinking I do is at home, from bottles I buy at the supermarket, so this ban will not affect how much soda I drink. When I go out to eat, I rarely finish the whole glass of soda they give me anyway!

Mar. 11 2013 03:34 PM
Moz from Manchester, U.K.


Mar. 11 2013 02:25 PM
Yoma from NYC

I was in a deli last week and talking to a work colleague about my new no soft-drink diet and he commended me (I am trying to lose weight)...the cashier at the deli heard this and said, sorry to interrupt your conversation, but I lost 100lbs over 2 years when I quit drinking soft-drinks. Apparently, it was the only liquid he consumed and today he looks healthy, isn't over-weight at all and said he feels great.

We may not like Big Gov' telling us how much junk to consume, but really it's only directing City businesses how much to serve.
You want to go home and drink yourself into oblivion on HFCS - no one is saying you can't do that.
Diabetes is all yours. It's a pity with the health care in this country, tax payers end up with your hospital care bills, when you can't afford it - and in all honesty, very few of us CAN afford health care.

Mar. 11 2013 12:04 PM
John from Wantagh

Far be it from me to tell you all how to live your lives re: sugared drink consumption, but here's my story that may help someone else. In 2002 I had a cryptogenic stroke, successfully treated, and since I didn't want to have another, my doctor told me to make gradual changes in my life, and the easiest change was to eliminate white sugar intake. I say easiest because I stopped putting sugar in coffee, instead trying flavored brews, and also stopped drinking soda, etc., and instead drink seltzer, of which there continues to evolve a rainbowopoly of flavors.
These two changes represent a reduction of 80% of the sugar in my daily diet! Reading labels helps, too!
So, as they say in Brooklyn, "try a seltzer, it couldn't hurt!"

Mar. 11 2013 11:12 AM
Lisa from NYC

When my chronic illness flares up, pretty much the only thing I can stand to eat is Frappuccinos, which are covered by the ban, since they're less than 50% milk. Since I'm often on crutches, I hobble to the nearest Starbucks for a Venti at lunch and breaktime (expensive, but what can you do?), and wrestle it back to work. I certainly can't carry two. I'm already very thin, and I tend to lose a problematic amount of weight when I'm ill. This rule will compel me to eat even less at those times, and since I'm hardly as rich as Mayor Bloomberg, I can't afford to end up in the ER. So I don't really know what I'm going to do about this.

Mar. 11 2013 10:28 AM

This ban only pertains to establishments that are inspected by the city health department. This will exclude the growing number of 7Elevens, giving this already powerful chain an unfair advantage over local bodegas. So it isn't going to make it harder to get a giant soda, it's just going to justify 7Eleven's lame argument that they are a welcome addition to underserved neighborhoods.

Mar. 11 2013 08:20 AM

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