‘No drink 4 U!’ Opposition to proposed soda ban bubbles up in New York

Next Tuesday is the last day to submit comments on New York’s proposal to ban large sugary beverages. Those opposing the plan have launched a vocal and well-financed campaign.

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    In this June 12 file photo, McDonald's employees serve a meal containing a large soda, in New York.
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A vocal and well-financed campaign opposing New York City’s “soda ban” is gathering signatures and sponsoring advertising ahead of next Tuesday – the last day to submit comments on the proposal.

But no matter how many signatures are gathered – more than 70,000 so far – the final decision lies entirely with the city’s Board of Health, appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Bloomberg himself proposed the plan that would prohibit food-service establishments from selling sodas and similarly sweet drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces.

The Board of Health has been accepting comments on the issue electronically and in writing since June 12. After hearing the last comments on Tuesday, the board will set a date to vote on the proposal.

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A coalition called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, funded primarily by the American Beverage Association, wants to make sure that its views are heard. It's a battle between the beverage industry and the mayor's office, with freedom to sell and buy large sodas on one side and an effort to legislate healthy behavior on the other.

And the battle is playing out all over the city.

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!”

Theater owners, not wanting to lose valuable concession sales, have been displaying their opposition on their marquees. A Regal cinema by Times Square has a sign that alternates between movie promos and a screen that reads, “say no to the NYC ban: nycbeveragechoices.com.”

“The only thing this misguided and arbitrary ban will do is reduce choices for New Yorkers and impact the health of small businesses," says Matthew Greller, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners.

And the American Beverage Association has sponsored local television and radio commercials with a New York-accented voice asking, “So are we gonna let the mayor tell us what size beverage to buy? If we let ’em get away with this, where will it end? New York City, it’s time to take a stand.”

New Yorkers for Beverage Choices declined to say how much these efforts cost, but spokesman Eliot Hoff describes it as a “significant campaign.”

“The overarching theme [of the campaign] is choice,” says Mr. Hoff. “People feel they can make their own decisions about what to eat and drink,” he continues. “People and businesses feel the ban is very arbitrary,” since it affects restaurants and theaters but not bodegas or grocery stores.

But the mayor’s office says the ban will help alleviate the obesity epidemic, and it has a long list of statements from public-health experts that support limiting sugary drinks.

“Obesity is killing 5,800 New Yorkers a year. The Board of Health will make its decision based on science, not political organizing,” says Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.

Although the city has no specific campaign to solicit comments in favor of the bill, for months it has sponsored public-health advertising to try to get people to cut back on sugary beverages.

One of those subway advertisements displays four beverages: a 20-ounce soda, a 20-ounce “sports drink,” a 40-ounce lemonade, and a 23-ounce sweet tea. According to the PSA, those drinks are loaded collectively with 68 packets of sugar.

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