If there was one person who understood the value of Coca-Cola, it was Andy Warhol.
“What’s great about this country,” Warhol said, “is that … the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest… the president drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola… you can drink Coca-Cola, too… no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same, and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it and you know it.”
It’s all true of course. But the democratization of soft drinks hasn’t all been sweet. In fact, the great availability of sugary beverages has sickened America, fueling the obesity epidemic and shaping our culture in many ways.
Let’s back up. On Monday, the New York Supreme Court ruled that a new regulation, set to ban sugary drinks larger than 16 fluid ounces, was “arbitrary and capricious,” essentially rendering it unenforceable. “The Portion Cap Rule,” the decision continued, “would create an administrative Leviathan and violate the separation of powers doctrine.”
It would be disingenuous to say that “sugary drinks” – defined in the lawsuit as non-alcoholic, carbonated or noncarbonated beverages that have more than 25 calories per fluid ounce and don’t contain more than 50 percent milk or milk substitute – have not contributed to obesity. Soda and its alternatives are cheap, tasty and ubiquitous. They reach Americans everywhere - in workplaces, schools, convenience stores and supermarkets - providing an easy stress release for a low short-term cost.
The court’s decision, however, is the correct one. The law would be a nightmare to enforce, have limited if any benefits and unfairly manipulate beverage markets in New York City to the detriment of some businesses and the advantage of others. It would be illegal to purchase a 22.5-fluid-ounce Arnold Palmer but acceptable to consume 64-fluid-ounce 7-Eleven Big Gulp and refill it.
But it would be simple-minded to say government action in this arena is unneeded, immoral or – gulp – tyrannical. America’s weight has moved from an individual problem to a societal nuisance. As the court itself notes, “Obese individuals spend $1,443 more on health needs than normal weight individuals. The number of those individuals receiving Medicaid/Medicare means tax payer dollars being poured into a preventable disease. It is estimated that obesity and overweight are responsible for approximately $4,000,000,000.00 in direct medical costs.”
Furthermore, similar to the alcohol and tobacco industries, sugary beverage retailers use subtle but sophisticated marketing techniques to reach consumers at their most vulnerable. Grocery stores, for example, place sugary beverages and snacks near check-outs because consumers are, on average, more likely to indulge in immediate rewards (a soda, cigarettes, a candy bar) if they’ve recently made several decisions, a psychological phenomenon known as “ego depletion.” After a long trip through the supermarket (“White or wheat?” “Ham or turkey?” “Gala or Fuji?”) consumers are less likely to stop themselves from indulging in something unhealthy.
It’s worth noting that these marketing tricks disproportionately affect people living in poverty. With less money to spend, there are more decisions to make. Should you pay down the MasterCard or the Visa? Live in a $400 studio on a bus line or share a $1800 3-bedroom two blocks from work? Those with means can let desire dictate their decisions. For everyone else, decisions are another occasion to make a willpower-draining choice, making them more likely to splurge on an immediate reward. Science.
Governmental regulations are society’s answer to these clever marketing mechanisms, our champions in the battle between waistlines and bottom lines. But our government needs to make its policies smarter and more applicable. To fight the problem described above, regulators could use something called Display and Sales Restrictions.
As Deborah Cohen and Lila Rabinovich put it in their meta-study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “To counter the influence of salience, foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value may be restricted to locations such as the back of store, behind the counter, or at locations other than end aisles or eye-level displays. Regulations could also be established concerning which foods may be displayed at the cash register or… which foods can be sold through a drive-through window.”
Corporations like Coca-Cola aren’t out to intentionally weaken America. But they are taking advantage of a lax regulatory environment to profit off of a disadvantaged few at expense to all. They are causing more Americans to become overweight and crying “personal responsibility” when taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid get saddled with the costs. As anyone who’s ever gained a little winter weight knows, it’s hard to tighten your belt when the buttons are bursting off your clothes.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to mold American culture into being more conscientious about diet, a worthy goal. But the current policies aren’t going to cut it. To fight Coca-Cola, regulations need to bear its resemblance: sweet, equal and democratic. It’s the American way.
Nathaniel Olson (email@example.com) is a senior majoring in history, political science and psychology.