I have a confession: I have a huge sweet tooth and can’t resist a bubbly beverage (I’m referring to soda, of course). But neither can America, and what’s the cost? With more than 65 percent of adult Americans overweight and 5,000 dying every day as a result of obesity, it’s time to get our act together to save the girth of America.
Last year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on the sale of sodas and other sugar sweetened beverages in containers larger than 16 ounces. The ban was supposed to take effect Tuesday, but New York State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling struck down the ban Monday. In his decision, he said the loopholes in the ban defeat its purpose and that Bloomberg overstepped the bounds of his authority by not having the ban approved by the City Council.
To understand the reasoning behind this ban, it’s important to know why soda is being targeted when there are many causes of obesity.
Soda consumption has a strong positive correlation with obesity. A typical 20-ounce soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar. These are “empty calories” since they have no nutrients and do not satisfy hunger. Therefore, it’s easy for someone to get a significant portion of their daily calories with just a couple trips to the soda machine.
So if people want to consume obscene amounts of sugar, why should it be your concern? Obese people are at a higher risk for many chronic diseases, which require more expensive health care and a relatively higher proportion of health care than non-obese people. Obesity also causes lower productivity, shorter work shifts and earlier retirement for workers.
The economic theory behind the ban aimed to curb consumer behavior in two ways: by a default bias and unit bias. Consumers typically choose a default option. If the default is a “large” size and it shrinks from 32 to 16 ounces, they will then only consume the new default of 16 ounces (assuming they don’t want to get a refill). Second, people are conditioned to take just one of an item, regardless of size. Since the average size of a single beverage has been on the rise, consumption of soda has also risen. If the options are smaller, consumption will decrease.
Although it has been referred to as a “nanny state” because of its health initiatives, New York City has actually been more of a “teacher state.” Bloomberg and the New York City have been pioneers in combating public health issues with often controversial public policies. They were the ones who initiated the ban on trans fats in restaurants in 2005, the ban on public smoking in bars and restaurants in 2008 and the requirement that restaurants post calorie counts on menus in 2008. All three of these are now widely accepted policies and have had positive results on public health across the United States. If the soda ban proves to be a success in New York City, they could put pressure on the rest of the state and country to implement a similar policy.
A ban on large sodas has not yet made its way to Wisconsin, but there are still things we can do as students to fight obesity, starting with ourselves. College students are a prime target for big soda companies because of our late nights—at the bar or the library. But there are other ways to satisfy your sweet and bubbly craving or caffeine addiction without all of the sugar. The most obvious choice: diet sodas. But those aren’t necessarily good for you either. Opt for coffee or tea with Stevia or other natural sweetener or naturally flavored sparkling water. Or, if you must get your triple chocolate frappa-whatever, ask for it unsweetened and sweeten it yourself. That way you know exactly how much sugar you are putting in your body.
Bottom line: No policy for combating obesity is perfect or comes without costs. Tingling’s reasons for striking down the ban overlook the underlying goal of the soda ban — to ignite a public battle against obesity. It’s time for New York City to work together yet again to set an example for America to save waistlines and lives.
Kelsey Fenton (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in economics.