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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a soft-drink container. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)DAMON WINTER/The New York Times

Public officials are right to be worried about a growing obesity problem that compromises vulnerable lives and strains the resources of health-care systems.

But as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's flawed campaign against sugary drinks has demonstrated, heavy-handed legislation is not a persuasive solution for the poor personal choices that collectively challenge our public health.

On Monday, a Manhattan judge ruled against Mr. Bloomberg's plan to limit the size of soft drinks and other high-calorie sweetened drinks sold at restaurants, fast-food outlets, movie theatres and food carts to 16 ounces (473 millilitres). Mr. Bloomberg had justified his unprecedented interference in the city's beverage options with phrases like "Obesity kills," a well-meant public-health motto that doesn't leave much room for negotiation with imperfect human pleasures like the outsized Big Gulp.

The judge called the Mayor's proposed limits "arbitrary and capricious" and decried the scale of the "administrative Leviathan" that would be required to police the city's soda-pop sinners. His decision was a sensible if belated check on a public official determined to go too far in the interest of the greater good.

Obesity is unquestionably a problem in a sedentary and affluent society where freedom of choice is too easily defined in supersized terms. Legislators are increasingly frustrated by their inability to help citizens do the right thing through public-health education, and they may well feel tempted to force them toward self-betterment through high-minded laws – lives are at stake, after all.

But even supposing that a one-size-fits-all plan like Mr. Bloomberg's was fair and workable – a dubious proposition, as the Manhattan judge noted – it's not the job of legislators to micromanage drink size and body shape at the retail level. There are few choices more personal than food and drink, and governments should not let their focus on obesity justify such extreme intervention in the odd joys of daily life. Some people will make bad decisions about their diet and have trouble exercising restraint, but they still retain the freedom and responsibility to adjust their habits on their own – however frustrating that might seem to powerful dietary statesmen.