First they came for the trans fat. Now New York City is going after Big Soda — bureaucratic guns blazing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, delis, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and food carts would fine businesses as much as $200 for each plus-size drink they sell.
Gulp. Big gulp. Speaking of which, since the rule won’t apply to supermarkets and convenience stores, you should still be able to buy 7/11’s enormous 32-ounce Big Gulp, a giant container of sugary fizz dwarfed only by the 44-ounce Super Gulp and the 64-ounce Double Big Gulp, which is twice the size of the average human stomach.
Nor will the ban extend to fruit juice, dairy-based beverages such as the 580-calorie Chocolate Frosty from Wendy’s, or alcoholic drinks. A ten-ounce margarita packs about 600 calories, around 10 percent more than a McDonald’s Big Mac.
All of that will be permitted, and yet you will no longer be able to grab a standard 20-ounce Coke bottle from a street cart in Central Park. Ditto for the 20-ounce Snapple and Gatorade bottles at your local sandwich shop.
“I think it’s absurd,” said Paul Previti, owner of a Delmonico’s deli in Midtown Manhattan. “I’m totally against it.” Delmonico’s sells several items larger than 16 ounces, and it would have to take these off the shelves to avoid a penalty. And, Previti adds, it’s silly to force people of different shapes, sizes, and needs to conform to the same arbitrary number. “First off, if you take a 16-ounce soda and throw some of it into a cup of ice, what are you left with? Ten ounces of soda? A guy who pulls over in a truck and has to go up on the Thruway, he might want to have the soda there for a couple of hours.”
Good point. But didn’t you know the mayor drinks only Diet Coke in his helicopter?
Andrew Mozell, a spokesman for the New York Restaurant Association, noted that New York City already has some of the strictest health regulations in the country, with mandated calorie counts for large chain restaurants, letter grading for health inspections, and a ban on trans fat. “It’s a very real concern to a large portion of the restaurant and hospitality business in New York City, both in terms of their bottom line and the precedent that it sets,” Mozell said of the new rule.
And it’s a slippery slope, Mozell warns. “Next year it might be how much butter you can put on your toast, or how many french fries you can have on your plate.” Mozell acknowledged that Mayor Bloomberg has “an excellent track record of pushing his initiatives through [the Board of Health],” which he appoints. In this instance, though, Mozell is more optimistic. “The public outcry against this kind of overregulation could be persuasive.”
At Sarge’s Delicatessen in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, Theresa, the bookkeeper, was visibly agitated by the fizzy-drink shakedown. “Don’t even get me started,” she said. “It’s ludicrous. I mean, who’s next? Mister Softee?” (Actually, that’s not a joke: Bloomberg tried to ban the ice-cream-truck jingle in 2010.)
Sarge’s, a fixture of the New York pastrami scene, doesn’t sell any items included in the ban, but it does offer extra-thick milkshakes, ice-cream sodas, and a dessert called Blackout Fudge Cake. For a deli hailed by Zagat as “a cardiologist’s nightmare since 1964,” big soda may be the canary in the coal mine.
Mizo, an employee at Silver Star Deli — which I frequent for lunch — wasn’t aware of the ban but was shocked that it would forbid the sale of such freezer favorites as 20-ounce Vanilla Coke. “People like the big drinks,” he said.
The unpopularity of the ban is underscored by reports that several potential candidates for the 2013 mayoral race have come out against it, including Democratic city-council speaker Christine Quinn. Even the New York Times complained of “too much nannying.”
“We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do things,” said Mayor Bloomberg, defending his plans on MSNBC. “We’re simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup.”
Fred Kirvan, manager of a Pudgie’s Famous Chicken in the East Village, noted that his chain does free refills, so it “doesn’t really matter” if consumers have to take a 16-ounce cup. Some might actually drink more, if they take a 16-ounce cup and a refill instead of drinking only one 24-ounce portion.
But even if the ban reduces the amount of soda people consume on a daily basis, how far will this really go toward reversing the so-called obesity epidemic? Soda consumption peaked in 1998 and has declined every year since, while national obesity rates have continued to tick up. Americans drank 25 percent less soda in 2011 than they did a decade earlier. In New York, childhood obesity has actually decreased slightly in recent years.
And let’s be honest: The obesity “epidemic” doesn’t really live up to its name. Fat is not contagious, and the use of such alarmist vocabulary obscures that this is an issue of individual responsibility rather than a concern of the Centers for Disease Control. It’s a subject for New Year’s resolutions, not resolutions of the New York City Health Board.
In addition to nettling consumers, the ban would impose a financial burden on restaurants forced to change inventory and alter menus. Delmonico’s also sells large-container beverages for parties, business that they could lose to 7-Eleven and other franchises that are exempt from the rule.
To George Rodriguez, a police officer in line at a Dunkin Donuts in Kip’s Bay, the ban on big sodas just seemed out of place. “It’s America,” he said. “People should be able to do whatever they want when it comes to stuff like that.”
So far, the mayor is sticking to his guns. “That is not exactly taking away your freedoms,” he said on the Today show Friday. “It is not something the Founding Fathers fought for.”
Right. The Founding Fathers were evidently occupied with much weightier things — like, say, crafting a constitution to ensure limited government.
In another delicious display of doublethink, Hizzoner issued a proclamation Friday honoring National Doughnut Day, which Entenmann’s celebrated with an event in Madison Square Park featuring sugary doughnuts 12 inches in diameter.
That gave the bookkeeper at Sarge’s an idea: “Somebody better check his refrigerator.”
— Alexander Kazam is a summer intern at National Review.