The Day After: Reactions to the NYC Beverage Ban

One day after New York City’s Board of Health issued a landmark ruling that will ban the sale of many sugar-sweetened beverages in the city, supporters and critics of the plan expressed a wide range of opinions ranging from relief and approval to anger and indignation.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the architect of a ban that will prohibit the sale of drinks that have more than 25 calories per 8 oz. serving in containers larger than 16 oz. was – as expected – elated with the ruling. The outspoken mayor voiced his satisfaction via Twitter, in which he referred to the ban “the single biggest step any gov’t has taken to curb #obesity. It will help save lives.”

Meanwhile, industry groups affected by the ban voiced concern and outrage at the Board of Health’s decision, one that they feel unfairly singles out beverages amidst a range of factors contributing to rising trends of obesity in America. Moreover, several pointed out that the ban disproportionally affects food service retailers in the city, which come under the jurisdiction of the Board of Health. Grocery and convenience stores are regulated by the state government.

In a blog post, the American Beverage Association (ABA) denounced the ban as “arbitrary” and one that will put on-premise food retailers in New York at a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts in convenience and grocery store channels.

“The small, family run deli in Queens will be prohibited from selling a 20 oz. bottle of soda to wash down the pastrami on rye a customer purchases,” said the ABA. “But chain grocery and convenience stores can sell as much soda in as large a container as they choose. It seems a random policy to anyone not in government.”

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) sided with the ABA and issued a statement yesterday calling the ruling a “misguided tactic to impact the obesity problem” that “unfairly targets restaurants.”

“There is no scientific support that this beverage ban’s size and caloric limit will impact obesity rates,” said Joy Dubost, Ph.D., R.D., the director of Nutrition and Healthy Living for the NRA. “It is also bewildering that the ban restricts restaurants from serving sweetened beverages in sizes larger than 16 ounces, but individuals can purchase any-sized beverage from a convenience or grocery store.”

The NRA also noted that the ban will create operational problems for restaurants, which will be prohibited from offering self-service containers larger than 16 oz., even if consumers intend to use them for sugar-free beverages.

Industry aside, consumer health advocates and academics had mixed views. Michael Jacobson, the executive director for the Center for Science and the Public Interest, praised the Board of Health’s decision. Jacobson stated that “it is the responsibility of city and state health departments to prevent disease” and “to make a dent in expensive and debilitating conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems, it makes perfect sense to act to discourage and reduce soda consumption.”

“I hope that New York’s action emboldens other health departments and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to limit serving sizes and use other measures to reduce consumption,” said Jacobson.

However, Brian Wansink and David R. Just, co-directors of the Cornell University Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, fiercely disagree with Jacobson. Wansink and Just lambasted the ban as “ineffective’” and one that “poisons the water” for better ideas.

Wansink said that although “banning larger sizes is a visible and controversial idea,” if the ban fails, “no one will trust that the next big – and perhaps better – idea will work, because ‘Look what happened in New York City.’” Just echoed Wansink’s comments and claimed that the ban was based on a misreading of research.

“We do not know how individuals who prefer or seek the large sizes will react,” Just said. “However, the best research out there suggests they will be resilient in their preference for large sodas. Both consumers and the stores that sell them will be resentful. Finally, the positive impacts of such a ban are likely to be very small.”

Although beverage industry groups have threatened legal action to reverse the ban in New York City, of significant concern for beverage manufacturers and retailers is the potential for the ban to spread to other parts of the U.S. The city is known as a center of influence for issues regarding health and wellness and the city of Cambridge, Mass. has already floated a similar proposal based on the NYC plan. Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, told Reuters that there was a good chance that other cities around the country would follow New York’s lead.

“It doesn’t seem so crazy anymore,” Brownell told Reuters. “You need somebody to go first.”