NYC Mulling Large Soda Ban

Mayor Bloomberg proposing 16-ounce limit on size of sugary drinks

NEW YORK -- New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in the city's restaurants, delis and movie theaters in the hopes of combating obesity--an expansion of his administration's efforts to encourage healthy behavior by limiting residents' choices, reported the Associated Press.

The proposal would take 20-ounce soda bottles off the shelves of the city's delis and eliminate super-sized sugary soft drinks from fast-food menus.

The administration's proposal would impose a 16-ounce limit on the size of sugary drinks sold at foodservice establishments, including restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and street carts. It would apply to bottled drinks as well as fountain sodas.

The ban would apply only to drinks that contain more than 25 calories per eight ounces. It would not apply to diet soda or any other calorie-free drink. Any drink that is at least half milk or milk substitute would be exempted.

The ban, which could take effect as soon as March, would not apply to drinks sold in grocery or convenience stores that don't serve prepared food. Establishments that don't downsize would face fines of $200 after a three-month grace period.

"You can still be a beast. We're not keeping you from eating fattening foods or drinking 32-ounce bottles of full-sugar drinks," Mayor Bloomberg told the All Things Digital gathering in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Thursday via video conference, according to Reuters. "We are just telling you that this is detrimental to your health and making you understand that by portion size."

The Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald's Corp. slammed the proposal.

"The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes. We are transparent with our consumers. They can see exactly how many calories are in every beverage we serve. We have prominently placed calorie counts on the front of our bottles and cans and in New York City, restaurants already post the calorie content of all their offerings and portion sizes--including soft drinks. New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase. We hope New Yorkers loudly voice their disapproval about this arbitrary mandate," Atlanta-based Coca-Cola said in a statement.

Heather Oldani, a spokesperson for McDonald's, said fighting obesity requires "a more collaborative and comprehensive approach. Public health issues cannot be effectively addressed through a narrowly focused and misguided ban," she told Reuters.

The proposal is the latest health effort by the administration to spark accusations that the city's officials are overstepping into matters that should be left in the hands of individual consumers, said AP.

"There they go again," said Stefan Friedman, spokesperson for the New York City Beverage Association, who called the proposal "zealous" in a statement. "The New York City Health Department's unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks is again pushing them over the top. The city is not going to address the obesity issue by attacking soda because soda is not driving the obesity rates."

But City Hall officials, citing a 2006 study, argue that sugary drinks are the largest driver of rising calorie consumption and obesity. They note that sweet drinks are linked to long-term weight gain and increased rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Regardless of whether it mounts any legal challenges, the beverage industry is likely to spend a lot of money fighting the proposal like it has fought ongoing efforts to tax soft drinks, Tom Pirko of Bevmark Consulting told Reuters.

"This is a challenge to the basic premise of their business plan, all predicated on selling sweet drinks in the largest volumes possible," he said. "New York is a mega-market, but more importantly it is New York. It sets the pace. What happens in New York has a strong influence on the rest of the country."

Coca-Cola has been boosting its fountain business with its new Freestyle dispenser that lets customers pick from more than 100 flavor combinations. It is unclear how the Freestyle machine would work if the ban passed, since diet drinks are not constrained.

Like draught beers, fountain sodas are often more profitable for suppliers than those sold in bottles and cans because they require less packaging and often have higher markups. That means the ban could constrain profits as well as sales.

"Maybe you make up for it in pricing. You can't sell as much anymore, but you up your price a little bit so it doesn't impact the company all that much," Moody's analyst Linda Montag told the news agency.

The proposal is to be submitted on June 12 to the New York City Board of Health, which will have a three-month comment period before voting on it.

If approved, the ban would take effect six months later and be enforced by the city's restaurant inspectors. Restaurant owners would have nine months after adoption of the ban before facing fines of $200 for violations, Bloomberg said.

Under the three-term mayor, the city has campaigned aggressively against obesity, outlawing trans-fats in restaurant food and forcing chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. The mayor has also led efforts to ban smoking in the city's bars, restaurants, parks and beaches.

Bloomberg often cites the city's rising life expectancy numbers as proof the approach is working, but his efforts have drawn criticism from others who accuse him of instituting a "nanny state."

His administration has tried other ways to make soda consumption less appealing. The mayor supported a state tax on sodas, but the measure died in Albany, and he tried to restrict the use of food stamps to buy sodas, an idea federal regulators rejected.