Michael Bloomberg is trying to push through a law banning large servings of sugary drinks, but should governments be able to dictate what people consume?
New York's mayor pushes for ban of large servings of soft drinks
Large servings of sugary soft drinks may be unhealthy, but should they also be illegal? New York City's mayor Mike Bloomberg thinks so. The campaigning politician is trying to push through a law banning all restaurants and food service outlets within his jurisdiction from serving soft drinks in measures larger than 16 ounces (473 ml). Designed as a nudge towards healthier behaviour, the proposed ban hopes to denormalise unhealthily vast servings and encourage people to think twice before guzzling. But despite being endorsed by both Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton, Bloomberg's plan has met with a fierce response both from businesses, which see their bottom-line threatened, and from some New Yorkers, who resent being treated like children.
So are food bans such as Bloomberg's a helpful way to encourage a better diet? Or are they just a bullying infringement of consumer rights?
If the powerful backlash to Bloomberg's proposal is anything to go by, it has at least stimulated public debate. The New York Times called the proposal "a ban too far", while Britain's Guardian attributed Bloomberg's campaign less to health concerns than to his "struggle against vulgarity". Major business interests have also hit back, with a Coca-Cola spokesperson calling the ban an "arbitrary mandate" and commenting that "New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this".
Even the ban's critics, nonetheless, can't deny the problem the ban addresses is massive. Fattening but nutritionally feeble sugared drinks unquestionably play a role in fuelling obesity, a problem that is only getting worse across the developed world. While New York is far from being America's least healthy city, 56 per cent of its residents are still overweight. Meanwhile, the situation is even worse in the Emirates, where no such ban has yet been proposed: 68.3 per cent of residents are overweight, if not necessarily obese.
For a government to intervene in what is essentially a free choice issue – how much to drink – may seem overbearing, but some researchers believe that the effects of obesity push people towards a form of addiction, one that itself pushes against free choice. According to research by Paul M Johnson and Paul J Kenny of America's Scripps Research Institute, consistent overeating reduces people's sensitivity to the brain's dopamine reward responses that eating normally prompts, making people eat more to compensate for their absence. According to their influential 2010 paper: "A defining characteristic of overweight and obese individuals is the fact that they will continue to overeat despite the well-known negative health and social consequences. Indeed, many overweight individuals express a desire to limit their food consumption, yet struggle to control their intake and repeatedly consume past energy requirements. Development of feeding behaviour that is insensitive to negative outcome is analogous to the compulsive drug-taking behaviour seen in human drug addicts that is similarly impervious to negative consequences."
If super-sized drinks are a building block of this addictive state, it makes sense to control their sale. The truth is, however, that the proposed law will not really do this. New Yorkers will still be able to binge on soft drinks, they'll just have to either buy them in grocery stores (which are exempt from the ban) or buy two portions. Meanwhile, other seriously sugary, calorific treats, such as fried doughnuts, will fly under the ban's radar with impunity.
The message the ban sends – that New Yorkers' representatives don't trust them to make sensible choices without government pressure – grates on many. With a third of Americans obese, they might be right, but the state's patronising intervention still stings.
Still, the ban is a sign of the way things are blowing. New York already banned restaurants from using trans-fats, in 2008, while their restaurant and bar smoking ban, controversial when it was implemented in 2002, is now common practice in the West. This isn't just a New York movement, either.
Last week, Walt Disney announced that it will no longer permit junk food advertising to accompany its children's television programmes, following a similar ban already in place in several European countries, while last year the UAE banned all junk food from its school canteens.
Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and Philadelphia have already adopted New York City's trans-fats ban, so it's not unlikely they will follow suit on super-sized drinks.
The worst fast-food culprits
Soft drinks may have a bad nutritional reputation, but they're far from being the only villains. Any greasy junk food is harmful in large quantities, but worse are crispy, breaded treats such as "popcorn chicken", which takes standard fried chicken and ups the ratio of unhealthy crust to meat. Burgers of all types may be laden with fat but at least contain some protein - it's hard to make similar claims for fat-filled French fries, whose saltiness prompts a thirst, which in many cases is quenched by sugary drinks. Still, it's not only the usual unhealthy suspects that pack a gut-bulging punch. The combination of sugar, milk and cream in full-fat cold coffee drinks makes them extremely calorific, for example, while mass-produced baked goods can contain surprisingly high levels of unhealthy hydrogenated trans-fats.
Such state control may irk many, but these bans may at least encourage people to look with a critical eye at the huge portions they consume.