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To Gulp or to Sip? Debating a Crackdown on Big Sugary Drinks
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
Gas guzzlers, McMansions, Walmart, Costco: If one thing is certain about American consumer culture it is that bigger is better, especially if it is cheaper.
So more than a few New Yorkers took it especially hard Thursday when they learned that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg wanted to take away their plus-size sodas in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, arenas and mobile food carts, as a way, he said, of fighting obesity.
Patrick Piatt, 48, and Linda Perez, 46, who were eating at a McDonald’s on 125th Street in Harlem, said they got more value by buying a 20-ounce lemonade, which would be four ounces too many once the new rules take effect. “For him to dictate, he’s outstepping his bounds,” Ms. Perez said. Mr. Piatt said that Mr. Bloomberg was looking down on them: “This is a man who has two standards. One for him and one for everyone else.”
Another diner, Monica Dauphine, 44, who was sharing a 32-ounce Sprite, gave the mayor credit for his good intentions, but said: “You can’t force it. It’s like dictatorship. I’m sorry, but if you want to be obese, you want to be obese.”
Reaction to the proposal came from many fronts on Thursday, falling along two general tracks. The idea was either sound health policy rooted in research, or a perfect illustration of a supersize government gone too far.
Some health experts said there might be some correlation between restrictions on soft drinks — many locales, including New York, already ban or limit them from schools — and a leveling off, or in some places even a decline, in childhood obesity. But one researcher whose work was cited by City Hall in defense of the policy said in an interview Thursday that he did not think it would work.
At least two candidates for next year’s mayoral race also came out against the proposal Thursday, to varying degrees. Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, said that by limiting personal choice, rather than promoting knowledge, “It seems to me to be more on the punitive side of things.” And William C. Thompson Jr., the former city comptroller who lost to Mr. Bloomberg in 2009, released a statement saying, “This move does nothing to teach people about positive nutritional values and sounds more like parlor talk than real solutions for the obesity epidemic.”
The proposed ban — the first in the nation — would prohibit the sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces, though consumers would not be prohibited from getting refills or multiple servings. It would apply to virtually an entire gamut of drinks including energy drinks and iced teas, but not to diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy drinks and alcoholic beverages, or to beverages sold in groceries or convenience stores. It would take effect in March 2013, after public hearings.
Anticipating the reaction, the mayor’s office released a long list of statements from supportive groups, like the United Way, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Obesity Society, some of whom longingly noted the bygone days of the six-ounce bottle. Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said in an interview that he understood how consumers might feel, because, “of course, Americans love value.”
But he hastened to add that he was on the mayor’s side, and that portion control was critical to calorie control. Research, he said, shows that though people believe they will eat just until they have satiated their hunger, in reality, “when people are served more, they consume more.”
Dr. Brownell believes people will quickly become conditioned to the 16-ounce limit and not feel cheated. “You’ll set a new norm,” he said. “Just like everybody in the country used to smoke, and there’s a new norm now.”
There is evidence that a health-conscious public has turned against sodas already, said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been leading the charge against sugary sodas for many years.
Since peaking in 1998, American consumption of carbonated sugary drinks has fallen by 24 percent, or 10 gallons, to 31.3 gallons per capita in 2011, Dr. Jacobson said. That 10 gallons works out to about 100 fewer cans of soda a year.
Dr. Jacobson attributed the decline to a rise in general health consciousness, the availability of bottled water, low-carbohydrate diets like the Atkins and the South Beach, the removal of soft drinks from schools and the growing publicity of information linking soft drinks to obesity and diabetes.
Childhood obesity appears to be leveling off across the country, and even declining slightly in New York City and Los Angeles, though the reasons are unclear.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit group based in Portland, Ore., is analyzing the impact on obesity of removing soft drinks from schools, said Ginny Ehrlich, the chief executive of the alliance. “I think we’re very optimistic, but we have not completed the analysis,” she said.
Ms. Ehrlich said that a number of studies have shown that fewer than 200 calories a day can make the difference between whether or not weight is gained. “If it’s just a matter of a few calories tipping the scale, then going from 32 ounces to 16 ounces could make a difference,” she said.
The mayor’s staff said he had considered studies like one by a Cornell University researcher, Brian Wansink, and colleagues, which found that when people ate soup from a bowl that secretly refilled itself through a mechanism hidden under the table, they ate 73 percent more soup than they would from a regular bowl, without realizing it.
But Dr. Wansink said Thursday that as a professor of consumer behavior, and as one of the originators of the 100-calorie snack pack, he believed the mayor’s idea was too confrontational. He said he had warned against it when City Hall consulted him on Wednesday and suggested something along the lines of teaming up with retailers to promote large diet drinks.
“I’m really afraid it will be an epic failure,” he said. And as a result, he said, “People won’t have any faith that anything else will work.”
His study was about tricking people into eating more, but people who buy large sodas know exactly what they are doing, Dr. Wansink said. Since they are making a price-sensitive choice, forcing them to pay more for the equivalent amount of smaller drinks is a regressive tax.
“In fact, people who want small soft drinks are the ones who buy small soft drinks,” said Dr. Wansink, who was in charge of U.S.D.A. dietary guidelines from 2009 to 2011. “People who want large get large, and they’re going to get it one way or another.”
The customers at the Harlem McDonald’s tended to agree, and to feel a bit slighted by the whole idea.
“He’s abusing authority, especially when he can buy 5 or 10 or a million 16-ounce cups,” Dineshia Bailey, 28, said Thursday as she drank her Coke — at 12 ounces, within the new guidelines. Genielle Laboriel, a 20-year-old student, said it would make more sense for the mayor to sponsor gym memberships. Ms. Perez suggested that the campaign against big soda would ultimately make Mr. Bloomberg a laughingstock. “I can’t wait,” she said, “until Jon Stewart does his bit on this.”
Michael M. Grynbaum and Alex Vadukul contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 31, 2012
A previous version of this article misspelled the given name of Jon Stewart as John.