General Health Friday June 1, 2012

Is the New York City mayor right to try to put restrictions on soft drink sales?

The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, has announced plans to restrict the sales of "oversized" soft drinks, with the aim of reducing obesity levels and improving the health of New York residents. The proposal has not been well-received by some, who take issue with attempts by politicians to legislate the public into being healthy. The consensus among those who disagree with the mayor's latest proposal seems to be that if people want to drink more soda than they know is good for them, that is their right.

The topic of legislation and obesity is one we have covered in the past here at the HealthExpress blog, particularly in relation to the possibility of a fat tax being introduced. Though it seems unlikely that any form of a "fat tax" will be introduced in the UK any time soon, the idea is supported by many health bodies and experts who are concerned about the growing levels of obesity amongst both children and adults. Opponents to any kind of fat tax argue that it would be far more beneficial to incentivise consumers to buy healthier food rather than punish them financially for choosing unhealthy options.

large american soda cup

The main difference between the proposed UK fat tax and the suggested soda restrictions in New York basically comes down to specificity. Though Michael Bloomberg is targeting one specific area of what is known as "junk food", the basic concept behind the proposal – to reduce obesity and encourage a more healthy diet - is the same. The restrictions would not ban all soft drinks nor make them more expensive; it would simply ban the "oversized" sugary drinks which are available. To most people outside of the United States, the suggestion that sugary drinks should not be sold in cup sizes over 16oz (about half a litre) seems a fairly reasonable one. Sugary drinks like soda can be incredibly unhealthy, and the fact that individuals in the United States can purchase cups containing as much as 64oz (1.9l) of sugary soda seems utterly unfathomable to a British blogger used to the size of soft drink cups maxing out at about 500ml.

However, despite the clear problems associated with allowing such gigantic sizes of soda to be sold – a 64oz cup will amount to 765 calories and almost 200g of sugar, for example – the suggestion to ban them has not been well-received. This is mainly because opponents resent being "nannied" and told what to do, believing instead that the right to make personal choices is the most important thing, even if, as in this case, the choices are known to be unhealthy.

With this in mind, it seems unlikely that Michael Bloomberg's proposal will actually be enforced, but is this a good or a bad thing? After all, surely it would be better to focus resources and time into education rather than legislation?

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