New York’s ridiculous debate over soda pop sizes

Mayor Bloomberg’s new proposal limits the size of sugary drinks, but the pop makers are fighting back.

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(Photo: Russell Bernice/Wikimedia)

When I landed in New York on Thursday, I found myself in the middle of a war zone. It’s wasn’t any kind of war that mattered, just a silly debate over the size of fountain drinks being sold by fast-food restaurants, movie theatres and other commercial vendors.

The battle started when Mayor Michael Bloomberg, concerned about the rising obesity problem in the U.S., suggested a limit on the size of such sugary drinks. Pop makers such as Coke and Pepsi, along with the fast-food chains, fought back by calling on that most American of rights, the individual’s right to consume as much as he or she damn well pleases. Literally.

My arrival in town coincided with a health board vote on the mayor’s proposal, which ended up passing. As of March 12, drinks will be limited in size to 16 ounces. The decision will be fought by New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a group financed by the soda pop industry. And yes, that really is a group.

This is one of those occasions where we Canadians get to feel superior. Yes, obesity is a rising problem in Canada too, but it’s nowhere near the epidemic it is in the U.S. Part of the reason for that is that although our drink sizes are getting bigger, they’re still smaller on average.

When I lived in New Zealand a few years ago, I actually lost weight, largely because of the portion sizes on both food and drinks. I used to joke with friends that their fast-food chains served only shot glasses of pop—that’s how small they were. By way of comparison, I remember hitting a fast-food restaurant while on a road trip through Florida a few years ago, and being able to fit my entire head into the largest cup size on sale. It’s worth noting that my head ain’t that small.

As it happens, I went to a movie here in New York on Thursday night and ordered a medium pop, forgetting where I was. I couldn’t quite fit my head into the cup, but it was bigger than I had hoped or expected. Fittingly, an ad from New Yorkers for Beverage Choices before the movie told me I should fight for my right to guzzle that entire drink. So I did.

It’s funny that this war has tapped into that vein of American libertarianism, which holds that people should be able to do whatever they want to their own bodies, regardless of how bad it is for them. But really, there are and should be natural limits to that. There really is no humanly need to drink a head’s worth of pop in any one sitting. And if you’re a sugar junkie and really, really want more, go back and buy another.

What I don’t get is the industry’s opposition to the move. By selling smaller-size drinks, won’t they profit more? It’s not like they’re going to sell any fewer units of drinks, just a lower amount of pure volume. Simple economics suggests that less volume sold at the same price and numbers equals higher profit.

Is the ruckus just PR designed to make consumers think the soda companies are on their side? It sure looks like it.

UPDATE: A similar battle is happening in Ottawa, where drink laws are also on the table. Similar libertarian arguments are being made against such rules and the industry is also mounting its own form of defence. Thanks to Simon Bodger for pointing that out.

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