On June 8, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter vowed to help take on Big Soda.
Nutter, a 1979 Wharton graduate, spoke at the two-day National Soda Summit in Washington, D.C. At the conference, 250 public health workers and researchers heard the most up-to-date research on the impact of high-sugar drinks on the body and discussed how to convince the public of these detrimental effects.
Nutter captivated the audience at the summit and received a standing ovation after his keynote address in support of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces. This includes soda, energy drinks and iced tea, but excludes juice, diet drinks and alcoholic beverages.
If this proposal were to be enacted, large-sized drink options would be banned from restaurants, stadiums, delis and food carts.
Although nothing in Bloomberg’s plan would limit customers from ordering multiple drinks or buying large-size beverages elsewhere, such as supermarkets or convenience stores, Nursing and Epidemiology professor Karen Glanz believes that it will still have a positive effect on obesity rates.
“People are less conscious of the sugar they take in when it comes in liquid form,” said Glanz, who studies theories of health behavior. “Soda consumption is a really strong predictor of obesity and weight gain.”
“Research by other scholars [such as Cornell Consumer Behavior professor Brian Wansink] suggests that we are more likely to notice how much we’ve consumed out of smaller containers because a smaller amount of consumption makes a larger dent on the amount remaining in a smaller container,” Wharton professor Katherine Milkman wrote in an email. “When we are more likely to notice our progress [as a result of smaller containers], we eat and drink less.”
Glanz does not think this ban is taking away the freedom of choice. “This ban does not say you cannot order more than one serving of a 16 ounce drink,” she said. “But it will make them stop and think.”
Rising Wharton junior Alex Kirk does not approve of the government imposing limits on consumer goods based on its nutritional value.
“It’s too slippery a slope that could easily lead to impositions of taxes and limits on chips and candy,” he said.
Glanz added that if the ban were to pass, “many venues around campus would be affected, but when students, staff and faculty attend concerts and sporting events, we would all be affected equally.”
Milkman agreed, saying that the ban could help “reduce soda consumption and thus help decrease waistlines at Penn as well as elsewhere.”
In his keynote address, Nutter recognized the controversy surrounding the idea of limiting super-size drinks, but he also noted the value in considering such a proposal.
“I don’t think this ban is nearly enough to curb obesity, but my prediction based on past research is that this will be a positive step towards reducing consumption of soda and thus shrinking waistlines,” Milkman said.
At the conference, Nutter described his long-term commitment to controversial public health measures. He said that of his 15 years on City Council, Philadelphia’s anti-smoking regulations were his greatest achievements. He added that the city’s menu-labeling law is the strongest in the nation, and he still stands behind his unsuccessful two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks.
Glanz said restrictions on drink size are not the only force pushing consumers to a pre-determined choice.
“Beverage marketing spends millions and billions in dollars each year not only trying to persuade people to drink their brand or to drink more, but it targets those who are disadvantaged, such as youth, the poor and minorities,” she said. “None of this is in the public’s best interest, so the ban on large-size sodas is more of a nudge rather than a push.”
Glanz added that the right to enact such a ban is “circumscribed by the law, which is why the mayor cannot stop manufacturers from producing large-soda drinks or limit people to only consuming 16 ounces.”
The soda tax, defeated in 2010, was brought back to the table in 2011 only to have the Council deny it once more. Although Nutter left the sugary-drinks fee out of his 2012 budget, there is a chance it may return. Nutter didn’t propose any increases in last year’s budget until the School District asked for help closing a budget gap of over half a billion dollars, causing him to turn to the ill-fated soda tax.
In his speech, Nutter acknowledged the counterargument to the soda ban, conceding that the research linking sugary drinks to health hazards has not been proven yet on a cause and effect scale.
“I support what he’s proposing because there is a health concern for the growing obesity in society,” rising College junior Ashley Bauer said. However, she questioned how effective a sugar tax would be since “it hasn’t been proven that sugary drinks directly increase the obesity.”
According to Glanz, Nutter is only considering enacting such a ban and is investigating whether it is within his legal jurisdiction. While Nutter has asked the Health Department to review it, he has not yet formed an official opinion on the matter.