National Consumers League

Understanding Bloomberg's 'audacious' soda proposal


By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg dropped a bombshell a few weeks ago. He proposed limiting sugary drinks sold by restaurants, cinemas, street vendors and stadiums in New York City to 16 ounces. Why did the Mayor make this audacious proposal? For one reason: obesity rates in the US and New York City are soaring and the experts say by 2030 40 percent of Americans will be obese. Two thirds of adults are now overweight or obese; (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68 percent of adults in the US were either overweight or obese). One third of children are overweight or obese. Will Bloomberg’s proposal work? I don’t know, but it sure has gotten people talking: about nutrition, empty calories, obesity and the role of government. And I think that’s a good thing. For example, people have learned a little more about sugary sodas. That they have no nutritional value and pack a lot of calories; that they are easily consumed in large quantities. A 12 ounce can of Coca Cola, for instance, has 140 calories. I admit it – I like the taste of real Coca Cola; I even crave it sometimes. But with a large cup, that 140 calorie drink can easily turn into 20 ounces or 233 calories. Also, many consumers have no idea how many calories they are consuming when they buy these oversized drinks or even how many calories they should be consuming in one day. (2,000 calories a day is the recommended intake for the average person.) To make matters worse, fast food joints make it cost-effective to buy the largest sizes; they are often only pennies more than the smallest drinks. Hey, more for less! Why pick on soft drinks? New York Health Commissioner Tom Farley spoke to this issue. “We know that portion sizes have risen dramatically. And we know that sugary drinks have this uniquely strong connection with weight gain.” The costs to the health care system of this excess avoirdupois are estimated to be $192 billion a year and unfortunately taxpayers underwrite a lot of those costs. Federal Medicaid and Medicare programs provide health care for millions of patients and thus treat the diseases caused or exacerbated by obesity: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer. And talk about cross purposes! I just learned that food stamps can be used to buy soft drinks. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, $4 billion worth of food stamp money is spent that way. (That shouldn’t be! Soda calories are utterly bereft of any nutritional value. Poor people in America suffer from obesity in far greater numbers and the food stamp program is intended to get people nutritious foods, especially children.) The soft drink industry is fighting back with every arrow in their PR quiver, as always. PepsiCo threatened to move out of New York a few years ago when there was a threat of an 18 percent tax on soda (to be used to reduce consumption and pay for health care.) This time around, the sugary beverage boosters ran a very funny ad in the New York Times! A sense of humor always helps. “…soda is not driving the obesity rate,” says Chris Gindlesperger, with the American Beverage Association. “New York City health department has an unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks.” Well, maybe. But there’s a method to their madness. Meanwhile, unlike the proposed sugar tax, which was crushed by the beverage industry, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal is virtually assured to pass. Only the city’s health board needs to sign off on it and all are mayoral appointees. One piece of good news is that consumption of sugary drinks is down from 1998 by about 24 percent. Let’s keep that trend going. One of the biggest obstacles is that efforts to combat consumption of high calorie drinks are drowned out by the advertising of beverages – all kinds of beverages from sweetened sodas, to sports drinks, to power drinks to caffeinated drinks, the list is endless. Most have hidden calories, and little if any nutritional value. And the ubiquity of these beverages is mind-boggling. Walk into any drug or convenience store and there’s invariably a long wall of refrigerated drinks, most of them not the low-calorie version. I can’t find sugar-free or “diet” ice tea versions in any CVS in my neighborhood. So I support what Mayor Bloomberg and New York City are trying to do – open up the discussion, say no to the purveyors of oversized, calorie laden and nutritionally empty drinks and in the process lets all learn more about what we’re eating and drinking, whether it has any nutritional value and hopefully keep a check on the explosion in obesity and the related costs associated with this American health epidemic.