Both “soda ban” opponents and supporters packed the room Tuesday at the one and only public hearing held by the New York City Board of Health on the city’s proposal to prohibit food-service establishments from selling extra-large sugary drinks.
This was the final official showdown – before the legal challenges promised by the soda industry – between supporters and opponents of the proposal, all trying to sway the impassive-looking members of the Board of Health. That panel will make the final decision on whether to prohibit the city’s restaurants, arenas, and cinemas from selling sugary drinks in sizes greater than 16 ounces.
“The Health Department will be reviewing all the comments it receives during today as well as online and in writing, and will be presenting to the board in September the rule [for a vote], along with any modifications that the Health Department feels it should be making,” said Thomas Farley, New York City health commissioner, before the hearing.
“The board is a group of independent health experts, so they’re the ones with the final say,” Dr. Farley said, in response to a question about whether they would ever vote against the proposal, since they were appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who proposed the controversial ban.
The room for the hearing had a capacity limit of 200 posted. Between board members, beverage-industry representatives, public-health experts, doctors, police, and reporters, it must have been close to that point of “dangerous and unlawful” capacity – a sign of the broad interest in this debate.
Even though many consider the board’s decision a foregone conclusion, that didn’t stop anyone from delivering impassioned testimony, both for and against the proposal.
“When they came for the cigarettes, I didn’t say anything, I didn’t smoke. When they came for the MSG, I really didn’t care because I didn’t order it very often. I’m not a big salt eater, so I didn’t mind when you guys regulated salt,” said Daniel Halloran, a member of the city council representing parts of Queens. “But what will the government be telling me next?”
Many health experts disagreed.
“Soda in large amounts is metabolically toxic,” said Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and a professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “Soda is indeed the right target,” he said, contradicting some who had testified against the proposal by saying that soda is just one product that contributes to obesity.
Health experts also called out the soda industry for what they described as a misleading campaign with rhetoric about freedom, when the real goal, they said, is protecting profits. They compared the soda industry to the tobacco industry and said that it focused its advertising disproportionately on youths and minorities.
“If you hold up the playbook and script from the tobacco companies and hold up the playbook and script for the beverage industry, they look remarkably similar,” said Kelly Brownell, a professor of public health and epidemiology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., referring to tobacco lobbying against smoking regulations.
Representatives from the beverage and restaurant industries criticized the science that links sugary drinks to obesity. They also argued that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal unfairly singles out some businesses, because it limits restaurants but not grocery stores, since those are regulated by the state and not the Board of Health.
“It does not prevent consumers from going next door to where they are eating to purchase a large soda from a grocery store or bodega,” said Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, saying the proposal could hurt small businesses in her district, which includes parts of upper Manhattan and the South Bronx.
The Board of Health will vote on the proposal Sept. 13. It would go into effect six months later.
For Farley, that can’t come soon enough. He compares this proposal to the city’s ban on trans fats.
“The restaurant industry called it ‘a misguided attempt at social engineering by a group of physicians who don’t understand the restaurant industry.’ I have not heard a single complaint about the ban on trans fats in New York City, and I fully expect the same will happen with this rule when it is all put into place.”