16 ounces to Freedom: Bloomberg and the Ban on Soda Sizes


–Brett Shanley

Tally up another failure for Michael Bloomberg.

Seldom does the word “failure” go in the same sentence with the name of a billionaire media-mogul major metropolitan mayor. But there it is. Bloomberg wanted a ban on soda sizes larger than 16 ounces; like a fourth term, it appears he will not get it. But why?

The Lonely Mayor

Michael Bloomberg seems a man short on friends. At one time or another, he has rightly earned the ire of blizzard-trapped Brooklynites to Hurricane Sandy victims. His tacit condoning of police brutality during the Occupy Wall Street protests –and the subsequent nighttime raid that destroyed it– did much to alienate the left. Those most likely to sympathize with his soda proposal then –disfranchised residents of the outer-boroughs and liberal activists– have been reminded routinely they are not high on his list of priorities. And like any potential friend, they have pulled away.

Their absence from the conversation left a vacuum in which Bloomberg’s calls for public sound like weak, eccentric echoes. “People are dying every day,” he said after the ruling. “This is not a joke.” That he felt the need to add those last five words shows just how much the mayor had lost the war of public perception.

But is he wrong? In the same speech he phrased the measure in terms of social justice, insisting that the obesity epidemic disproportionately affected the poor.

As with so much else about New York, to verify a claim it helps to have a map. On March 11th, The Health Department released a study showing the obesity rates in various parts of the city: At one end, Chelsea and Greenwich Village (9.8%), followed by the Upper West Side (11.9%). At the other end of this horrific scale: BedStuy / Crown Heights (33.3%) and, with the most obese citizens, the Fordham area of The Bronx (34.1%). The socio-economic implications of these figures are obvious.

Those that work with the young and the underprivileged see it firsthand, every day. Theresa Almazon is a high school teacher near Fordham University, and showed no surprise the area topped the scales for obesity. “There are so few healthy options they have to chose from, and ‘breakfasts’ in class usually consist of M&Ms, chips – and extremely large sodas. All before 10 AM,” she said. “It’s remarkable how over a short period of time you see students gaining weight. A lot of weight. A scary amount of weight.”

Follow The Money

Discovering who finances a movement is an easy way to discover its true motivation. In this case, the money trail leads straight to the corporate boardrooms of the soda manufacturers and retailers themselves.

Everything from the National Association of Theatre Owners of New York State and the New York Korean-American Grocers Association lobbied against the proposal, but the most powerful of these groups is the American Beverage Association. With a Board of Directors taken from Coca Cola Co, Pepsi Co., Dr. Pepper Snapple group, among others, they are exactly those people who’ve aided in the obesity epidemic to begin with. Their reaction to the ruling is a study in Orwellian doublespeak:

“The court ruling provides a sigh of relief to New Yorkers and thousands of small businesses in New York City that would have been harmed by this arbitrary and unpopular ban. With this ruling behind us, we look forward to collaborating with city leaders on solutions that will have a meaningful and lasting impact on the people of New York City.”

They have played this game before and are good at it; fighting such public health initiatives is arguably their very reason for existing at all. When a 2009 study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggested a tax increase on sugary drinks, the American Beverage Association even founded a spin-off organization called “Americans Against Food Taxes.” Despite the peer-review by nutritionists and economists, and with copious evidence that it would cut health care costs and save lives, the AAFT lead with a populist theme, protecting “hard working families” from excessive taxation.

There is a long precedent for this behavior: the tobacco industry did it for years.

Taxation nor freedom was not the approach taken by the man that made the call, Judge Milton A. Tingling. He cited discrepancies in the law, as it only affected those establishments under city jurisdiction (restaurants, movie theatres), but not those under state jurisdiction (such as 7/11). These were the legal (rather than public relations) arguments presented to him by confederated manufactures and retailers, and the judge’s opinion was inextricably linked to their lobbying efforts.

Doing something, it was decided, was worse than doing nothing.

A Sign of the Times

The ad pictured with this article graced the back of many soda delivery trucks for the last several months. It is unmistakably similar to the cover of an Ayn Rand novel, particularly The Fountainhead, a resemblance not likely lost on the design team who created it. It empowers, imploring the New Yorker as if in one word: “Freedom!” – as if “freedom” were something found beyond the 16th ounce of a cup of Diet Pepsi, and New Yorkers weren’t slowly killing themselves with their products.

Under the bold appeal on this particular truck door someone scrawled “Let corporations.”

Judge Tingling must not have picked up on their irony.

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