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Corvese ’15: Stolen soda is sweetest

By
Opinions Columnist

When New York State Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling ’75 overturned New York City’s ban on large sugary drinks, I am sure Mayor Michael Bloomberg and countless other New Yorkers were frustrated. But I was very pleased with the ruling.

Bloomberg certainly had the best intentions when proposing this policy — why wouldn’t we want to limit access to sugary drinks that contribute to our nation’s growing obesity epidemic? According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, soda and other sweet drinks are the top source of added sugars, which contribute to obesity and related health problems. But the ban itself is both an overstep of government power and an ill-conceived solution to a much bigger problem.

A ban on the purchase of large drinks is not a solution to a public health problem so much as it is an arbitrary restriction on consumer freedom. The government should not have the power to dictate what food or drink the public can and cannot buy, especially since not everyone purchasing a drink over 16 ounces necessarily has a health problem in the first place. While I would not advise that people consume these large drinks on a regular basis, I do not frown upon the purchase of a large soda on a hot summer day in New York.

Not only is the ban unusually prohibitive, but it also has loopholes. Tingling accurately claimed the regulations had “arbitrary and capricious consequences.” The ban did not affect state-regulated stores such as supermarkets and convenience stores, where consumers can freely buy the large drinks that are banned elsewhere. Most canned sodas come in 12-ounce sizes, and they often come cheap in bulk packs of 12. And if consumers really want over 16 ounces of a drink, they are not restricted from buying two smaller ones. These loopholes illuminate the larger problem in Bloomberg’s efforts: Regulations can change what people purchase but not what they think.

Increased excise taxes on cigarettes, for example, made them less affordable and reduced usage. Though cigarette consumption has declined, there are still people who choose to smoke regardless of the price. Similarly, a tax on these drinks may dissuade people from buying them. But a policy alone will not single-handedly change the fundamental behavior that is detrimental to one’s health.

Bloomberg’s ban misses one of the most important aspects of health promotion: communication. Policy alone cannot get the job done, which is why it must work alongside communication to effectively spread a message. The ban deems sugary drinks over 16 ounces unhealthy. But what about problems with consumption of sugary drinks in general, regardless of their size? What about enormous food portion sizes or neglect of a balanced diet? A ban alone does not communicate the countless other health ramifications of what it prohibits. From these misses, we can see the greatest oversight of this ban — that obesity in America does not have a single, overarching solution.

Plenty of social and cultural problems contribute to obesity’s prevalence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity prevalence increased in adults across all income levels over the past two decades. Perhaps people with more money can buy more food and consume larger portions. People living in poorer areas often live in “food deserts,” where markets with healthier foods are more difficult to access compared to convenience stores. Whatever the cause, there are a countless number of social factors contributing to obesity, a number that a ban on large drinks alone cannot lower.

Though Bloomberg’s efforts reflect good intentions, they are not sustainable. What if similar measures were implemented here at Brown? Taking soda out of the dining halls would surely reduce students’ sugar intakes. But if nutrition improvement is our goal, shouldn’t we also take away the carbohydrate-loaded Blue Room treats and the greasy entrees served at the Gate and Josiah’s?

Our culture is filled with choices that constantly influence our health and cannot be eliminated by regulations alone. Bloomberg’s efforts, though commendable in recognizing a public health problem, are misguided and should be directed elsewhere. Likewise, we should not expect changes in behavior from policies alone. True progress is not a restrictive ban. Rather, it is a thirsty person ordering a large Sprite while our officials finally address the social and behavioral problems at the core of public health.

 

 

Gabriella Corvese ’15 is studying Community Health and would love to chat over a tall glass of Coke. She can be reached at gabriella_corvese@brown.edu.

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  • tfreeman98

    How refreshing it is to hear a little common sense from a student at Brown!