As many of you have recently heard, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing to institute a city-wide ban on sugary drinks of more than 16 ounces, that are dispensed in eating establishments. There are some positive things we can say about the idea and one negative that is so huge, it might even cancel out all the positives combined. First, let us take a look why Michael Bloomberg’s idea might be a good one.
Keep in mind, the ban is to be applied on a somewhat narrow basis. New Yorkers will still be able to buy those two-liter bottles of soda in their supermarkets and grocery stores. That makes sense, since the re-sealable bottles are marketed as “family-size” and meant to slake an entire family’s thirst. On the other hand, how often are you going to see mom, dad and the kids all sticking straws into the same super-jumbo beverage at a fast-food restaurant? 999.99 times out of a thousand, all that soda is going into one stomach and one only. As Mayor Bloomberg correctly pointed out, people are naturally prone to finish what is in front of them. Perhaps it is a fundamental survival instinct that makes us averse to wasting food. That means that, while a 16-ounce soda will almost certainly serve to wash down whatever you are eating (unless, perhaps, you ordered a box of saltines, with a side order of dust), if you have a 32-ounce cup of soda in front of you, you will be likely to drink it all. There is a real problem afoot here, and, no matter how the soft drink lobby howls and protests (which they have begun to do already) that excessive soda does not contribute to the obesity epidemic, we all know perfectly good-and-well it does.
Why, some might ask, institute this ban from on high? Would it not be better to persuade the beverage producers to voluntarily reduce the size of their restaurant servings? Even if any of them would be at all inclined to do so, think of the very real problem they would face. If, for example the people at Pepsico decided, absent the ban, to limit its containers to no more than 16 ounces in its restaurant outlets, how long do you suppose it would take KFC, for example, to switch to Coke? My guess is, about as long as even a heavy smoker could hold his breath. No, the only way this is going to happen is if the same rule applies to all competitors, across the board. Even if most fast-food consumers (including me) do not opt for the largest size, enough of them do so that, to institute such a ban in the absence of government compulsion, would create an economic disaster.
Another limitation of the ban that Mayor Bloomberg has allowed is that it can only apply to portion size, not to the number of portions. That means, if you are not satisfied with your 16 ounces of liquefied sugar, you are perfectly at liberty to get another 16 ounces. In fact, many fast-food places offer a free refill. Thus, you can throw down all the soda you want, so it really isn’t much of a ban is it? All Mr. Bloomberg is trying to do is put a crimp in the power of suggestion that would otherwise induce you to gulp down more of that stuff than you need.
If the ban is put in place, it will, over the course of time, be helpful to the health and well-being of a very large number of New Yorkers, whether they like it or not. Forcing them to live a few years longer does not sound like the most evil plot that was ever hatched.
Ah, but that brings us to the really big negative, which has very little to do with soda and a great deal to do with far more important aspects of politics and the economy. Ever since 2010, the super-greedy among our nation’s wealthiest people have had the wonderful blessing of the Tea Party to do their dirty work for them. To this day, the most vocal proponents of this organization’s philosophy have not yet awakened to the plain fact that they are being taken for a ride by their obscenely-rich supporters. With this groundswell of middle-class support, the gamers of the system hope to continue gaming it with impunity.
What does that have to do with Mayor Bloomberg and his soda ban? Plenty; just bear with me a moment. What we need to realize about many in the Tea Party is that it is not entirely about dollars and cents. There is a very real resentment out there about the intrusiveness of government into their daily lives. To be sure, this is a problem that really exists. There are people working in our governments, state and federal, who believe your right to privacy is not as important as their desire to make you behave yourself, according to their precepts. At its worst, it is as dangerous as it is obnoxious.
To be sure, there is some behavior that ought to be regulated, such as restricting smoking in enclosed public places, since we know secondary smoke is dangerous. But then there are ridiculous laws, such as the one that was put into effect in my area, banning the serving of medium-rare beef in restaurants, supposedly because it has not been cooked enough. Come on!
Libertarians and Tea Partiers have every right to resent these laws, but their resentment can and often does rise far beyond the level of the importance of the grievance. Notwithstanding that Mayor Bloomberg is an Independent who came to office as a Republican, his idea will quickly become associated with the “liberal agenda” and will provide enormous amounts of fuel to the greedy and their political allies. Thus, a voter could become so resentful over the soda ban that it would outweigh his insurance carrier being allowed to drop coverage on his sick child, if the conservatives succeed in repealing “Obamacare.”
It is for that reason and that reason alone that any New York politicians who will have a say-so over Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban should think long and hard before they give it the rubber stamp.
CBS Evening News broadcast, 5/31/12