Life, liberty…and the pursuit of supersized sodas?
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the serving size of sugary soft drinks in the city’s restaurants, movie theatres and sports venues has provoked a national political debate about just how far government should go to regulate human behaviour.
Only in America could the Big Gulp be held up as a cherished symbol of freedom.
Mr. Bloomberg, the $22-billion-man who made his fortune in the free market before moving into government a decade ago, announced on Thursday that he would seek approval from the city’s Board of Health to prohibit restaurants and movie chains from serving soda in containers larger than 16 ounces (475 ml).
That is about half the size of a 7-11 Big Gulp, which would be unaffected by the new rule, since it would exempt convenience and grocery stores – an inconsistency that the mayor has struggled to explain in his bid to halt a growing obesity epidemic.
For many observers, the ban on extra-large soft drinks smacks of a “nanny state.” But it is not the first time the 70-year-old mayor has resorted to government coercion to prevent New Yorkers from indulging in bad habits.
The city has some of the toughest anti-smoking regulations anywhere, has banned trans fats in restaurants and requires restaurants to post calorie counts.
On Friday, Mr. Bloomberg continued a media blitz to defend his soda proposal, which is likely to sail through the Board of Health, since the mayor controls its appointees.
“We’re not banning you from getting the stuff. It’s just if you want 32 ounces (1 litre), the restaurant has to serve it in two glasses,” Mr. Bloomberg told NBC’s Today. “That is not exactly taking away your freedoms. It is not something the Founding Fathers fought for.”
Of course, carbonated soft drinks were not around when the 1776 Declaration of Independence deemed that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were inalienable rights bestowed on all men by God.
Mr. Bloomberg got some unexpected support for his proposal – the New York Post, the right-leaning tabloid own by Rupert Murdoch. In a Friday editorial, it declared that “this particular attempt to combat America’s obesity epidemic may well be worthwhile.”
The mayor’s proposal is based on the premise that people tend to consume everything that is put in front of them, whether they want to or not. Hence, smaller serving sizes lead to a smaller calorie intake.
Former president Bill Clinton also voiced his support for the mayor’s proposal, noting that Type II diabetes is now “showing up in nine-year-olds” in the United States.
“It’s basically too much sugar going into the body,” Mr. Clinton told CNN’s Piers Morgan on Thursday “So, if you get rid of these giant, full of sugar drinks, and make people have smaller portions, it will help.”
A typical ally in the mayor’s quest to reduce New Yorkers’ waistlines, however, drew a line on the soda ban. In a Friday editorial, The New York Times concluded that “too much nannying with a ban might well cause people to tune out.”