New York ban on big sodas faces new hurdle: New Yorkers

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on sugary drinks of more than 16 ounces in restaurants is now open for public comment. A poll shows New Yorkers are against it. 

Mary Altaffer/AP
McDonald's employees serve a meal containing a large soda Tuesday in New York.

Public opinion has been flowing ever since Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month announced his effort to end super-sized soda guzzling in New York City. Now, New Yorkers will have a chance to weigh in officially on the controversy.

The city’s Board of Health unanimously decided Tuesday to open to public comment the plan to limit the size of sugary drinks that restaurants, delis, and cinemas can sell. After that, they’ll vote on the proposal.

“Of course, we hope that it is affirmed and that [residents] like it and that the public comment comes back in a way that doesn’t give us pause,” says Linda Gibbs, deputy mayor for health and human services. “If there is pause from the public comment then we’re going to take that into consideration.”

The potential ban has captured national attention over the question of how far government should go in legislating public health. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 64 percent of Americans thought it showed government going too far in regulating people’s diets.  

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that Americans are more than 25 pounds heavier than they were in 1960; obesity rates nationwide top 35 percent. The trend has led to great incidence of certain diseases, medical experts say. Studies show that sodas and other sugar-packed nutrition-free drinks are the biggest source of added sugar in American’s diets.

Mayor Bloomberg's proposal would prohibit businesses such as restaurants and theaters – though not supermarkets or convenience stores – from selling sugary drinks like soda in containers larger than 16 ounces, which is currently a small McDonald's drink.

Opposition is strong. "New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase. We hope New Yorkers loudly voice their disapproval about this arbitrary mandate,” reads a statement from Coca-Cola.

The National Restaurant Association and fast food industry have also joined in, speaking out against the bill.

New Yorkers are less opposed to the plan than the nation as a whole, with 53 percent opposed to the proposal and 42 percent in favor, according to a NY1-Marist poll. They’ll have the chance to send their comments to the Board of Health up until and at a public hearing on July 24.

The city requested that board members refrain from giving their opinion after Tuesday’s meeting, to give the public a chance to be heard.

“You don’t want people prejudging the outcome, and you don’t want New Yorkers to get the sense that the outcome is prejudged, so that’s an important part of the integrity of the process,” say Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor for government affairs and communications.

Some members, however, asked questions during the Tuesday meeting about banning large size food portions as well.

“The argument could be ... it makes sense to restrict the portion size [of sugary drinks], but what about the size of a hamburger or the jumbo fries?“ asked Board of Health member Michael Phillips.

The Department of Health's Susan Kansagra, who explained the proposal to the board, responded that “if you look at the excess calories that we’re consuming now as opposed to 50 years ago, the largest single source of those calories is sugary drinks.”

On Monday, Bloomberg’s office sent out a press release listing more than 50 public-health experts who have come out in favor of the ban.

The Board of Health is comprised of public-health experts nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

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