New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed controversial restrictions on the sale of large, sugary drinks. The proposed limit would cap serving sizes in restaurants, delis and food carts at 16 ounces. In the face of an increasingly urgent obesity epidemic, it should be no surprise that city governments have taken to stepping in. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced his support for the proposal and said that Philadelphia would look into pushing a similar initiative. Despite the endorsement, this particular measure would fail to have any significant impact. Reforms beyond the limited scope of Bloomberg’s proposal are necessary to combat the ever-expanding waistlines of America’s cities.
The restriction might have a limited effectiveness in decreasing sugar intake in particular circumstances. Many people might not go through the inconvenience of ordering a second drink to compensate for smaller cup sizes at restaurants. But the long list of drinks that are exceptions to the rule — including diet sodas, milk-based drinks, juices and alcoholic beverages — narrow the impact of the reform.
Further eroding the restriction’s efficacy is the fact that convenience and grocery stores would be untouched. People who want to indulge in an excess amount of soft drinks would simply have to buy it somewhere other than their favorite fast-food restaurant. As a result, the measure probably would not effectively target the largest consumers of sugary drinks.
Moreover, a myriad of unhealthy foods remains easily available. While a correlation has been shown between intake of sugary drinks and obesity, an undeniable causal link has not yet been established. It seems unlikely that reducing — not even eliminating — soda intake would make much of a dent when foods containing even more sugar remain completely unrestricted.
Additionally, the punitive nature of the proposal is an ineffective use of resources. New York, as well as Philadelphia, could more efficiently allocate scarce law enforcement resources toward more pressing criminal matters.
While Bloomberg’s proposal would do little to curb the obesity epidemic, it has started a dialogue that can only lead to positive change in public health policy. A major function of governments is promoting public health, and it is encouraging that cities are attempting to take obesity head-on.
A more effective program, however, would include broad-ranging education, consumer information and, perhaps, proven serving size restrictions.
The proposal in its current form, though, is merely a drop in the Big Gulp cup.