Commentary: Should government tell us we can't drink soda?

The Rock Hill HeraldJune 5, 2012 

Sometimes my live-free-or-die libertarian instincts collide with my desire to help President Obama establish a socialist state like the one in Canada. The latest move by New York City to induce people to lead healthier lives by government fiat is a case in point.

The Big Apple, according to the New York Times, plans to ban the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts. The hope is that the ban will help reduce the rising obesity rate in New York City, where more than half of all adults are obese or overweight.

The chief advocate of this proposal is Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who says that instead of merely wringing its hands about the problem of obesity, the city of New York intends to do something about it. This isn’t his first foray into government regulation designed to improve his city’s health.

Bloomberg also championed earlier edicts, including the prohibition on smoking in restaurants and parks, a ban on the use of trans fats in restaurant food and a requirement that health inspection grades be posted in restaurant windows. These efforts, The Times says, have earned the mayor the title of Nanny Bloomberg.

But the paper also notes that these restrictions have been adopted by other cities nationwide. So, the soda ban might also become a model for the rest of the country.

The proposed ban, which could go into effect by next March, would affect not only sugar-sweetened sodas but also energy drinks, juice drinks with added sugar – and even sweet tea! Diet sodas, real fruit juices, dairy-based drinks such as milkshakes, unsweetend tea and alcoholic drinks would not be affected.

Under the ban, any cup or bottle of sweetened liquid larger than 16 fluid ounces would be prohibited at most food-service venues, including restaurants, sports arenas, delis, fast-food joints and hot dog carts. Groceries and convenience stores would be exempted.

The ban obviously would not eradicate the giant cups of soda the size of a pail. People still could buy them at the corner quick stop.

Nothing in the ban would prevent people from buying two or three sodas at a time. Nor would the ban prohibit free refills at fast-food franchises, which essentially allow people to drink all the soda they can hold.

My libertarian self wonders whether such a loophole-filled ban would have any effect. More to the point, what business does government have trying to tell me how much soda I can drink? Next, Bloomberg will be requiring all New Yorkers to eat broccoli.

At the same time, my socialist self argues that government regulates consumption at many levels – see cigarettes, alcohol and the aforementioned trans fats. We know that sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, which, in turn, is one of the leading causes of diabetes, which now is occurring at near-epidemic levels, so why not regulate sodas, too?

Because of obesity, say researchers, the current generation of American children might be the first to have a shorter average lifespan than their parents. As Bloomberg says, we can wring our hands or we can do something about it.

A 16-ounce drink still is four ounces more than a regular can of Coke. That 16-ounce soft drink contains 52 grams of sugar – or the equivalent of about 12 teaspoons – and nearly 190 calories, all from sugar.

Double those numbers if you drink a 32-ounce 7-11 Big Gulp. Even a medium-sized drink at a burger joint holds 21 ounces.

Soft drinks are the largest source of refined sugar in children’s diets. A third of the nation’s children drink three sodas a day.

Sodas are relatively cheap, especially if you buy them on sale. That is one reason the obesity rate is higher in low-income families.

It is no exaggeration to say that sugary drinks, at the level we are consuming them, are poisoning us. Doesn’t it follow that government should play a role in preventing us from poisoning ourselves and our unwitting children?

My socialist self says yes. My libertarian self says people need to take responsibility for their own lives, including regulating the number of sodas they drink each day, regardless of what Nanny Bloomberg might think.

Whichever self ultimately wins that debate, my sensible self knows this: One 16-ounce soda at a time is plenty.

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