Today an array of interested parties will gather in NYC to attend the Department of Health’s public hearing on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on “large sugary beverages.” Mayor Bloomberg has used the past few weeks to harp on the prevalence of and risks associated with obesity–which no one denies. He’s also compiled a list of celebrity supporters, which he likely feels bolster the validity of his cause. Many individuals, however, are not so easily swayed and believe that, as WLF suggested in comments filed yesterday with the Board of Health, the legitimacy of any attempt to curb individual liberty lies in the science behind it and the economic and social effects it has.
In our comments, WLF both questions the Board’s authority to enact the proposed ban and argues that such a measure is not a rational means of addressing obesity. In order to fully evaluate the rationality of this heavy-handed measure–as any law-making body should–the Board must take into consideration the economic and social effects, in addition to the health concerns. Just yesterday the founder of Honest Tea wrote an op-ed describing the burden the ban would put on the company, whose product contains 35 calories per eight-ounce serving (10 calories above the ban’s quota) and comes in 16.9-ounce bottles–just .9 ounces above the board’s arbitrary 16-ounce limit.
But further, because some establishments are not included in the ban (including grocery stores and 7-Elevens), the ban will have an unfair and disparate impact on what could potentially be two stores on the same corner. This result is not only unfair, but undermines the bill’s potential to change consumption habits. The complex economic and social effects of the ban suggest that under New York’s various separation of power provisions, the New York City council is the appropriate authority for enacting the measure.
WLF not only calls into question the legality of the ban, we further question the propriety of a paternalistic bill that arguably will not be able to accomplish the intended ends. Various scientific studies challenge the link between soda consumption and obesity, and the ability of bans to effectuate behavioral change. In other words, if a thirsty, sweet-toothed individual wants to get a sugar high, he or she will find it, perhaps by buying two 16-ounce drinks, taking advantage of free refill policies, walking next door to a vendor not covered by the ban, or by purchasing a milk- or alcohol-based sugary beverage (also not covered by the ban) or a sugary food substitute.
Not subsidiary to the legal and policy considerations is the burden the ban imposes on individual liberty. An individual’s freedom to exercise personal choice not only bolsters human dignity, but reinforces personal responsibility. When one employs that freedom, he or she makes decisions that have an immediate impact on his or her quality of life. The individual, and not government, is in the best position to make these choices, and it is only through the making of individual choices that we can understand human preferences and needs.
In Mayor Bloomberg’s world, occasional indulgences are banned, and familiar foods are wiped from the shelves. And as we note in our comments, this is not as petty of a measure as Mayor Bloomberg would have us believe: food has important cultural and social dimensions. And if a ban on soda seems innocuous enough, there’s no guarantee that the virtual sin tax will be restricted to this one particular transgression: the Board has already contemplated extending the ban to movie theatre popcorn and milkshakes. It’s going to take a lot more to change obesity figures, the question is, do we want more?
Other and less intrusive means exist that better suit our country’s attitude towards individual choice, such as public education efforts, or the expansion of recreational parks. We can only hope the hearing today is not for theatrics, and that the Board will reconsider the measure, which is ill-suited to curing the illness in question.