Commentary: A cheer for NYC Mayor Bloomberg's soda policy

The Kansas City StarJune 22, 2012 

For lunch one day this week, Kansas City Mayor Sly James savored a salad with an “unidentifiable dressing,” fish, and some kind of “mystery meat.” He did not clean his plate.

Followers of the mayor’s Twitter account (@MayorSlyJames) know all this because James has embarked on a very public weight-loss regime. He’s in competition with Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Heeter to see who can do the best job of meeting healthy indicators by the end of October.

Being mayor or a chamber honcho can be tough on the waistline. There are endless receptions, business lunches and grand openings. The appetizer tray always comes back around. Early morning meetings and evening banquets leave little time for the gym.

And so James — who confessed during his campaign to a fondness for barbecue and soul food — joins a growing list of mayors who have challenged themselves, their cities, or both, to slim down.

Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker publicly reformed his diet and started exercising when he agreed to co-chair Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” anti-obesity campaign.

The mayors of Oklahoma City and Boston, have encouraged constituents to downsize. In Oklahoma City, 47,000 residents who participated in Mayor Mick Cornett’s challenge dropped a total of one million pounds in four years.

Some mayors are more successful than others in setting an example.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders was lauded in Men’s Fitness magazine for losing almost 100 pounds, mostly by walking 70 miles a week and eschewing Mexican food.

Which brings us to a mayor who has upped the ante in the obesity wars.

New York City’s Michael Bloomberg has called for a ban on the sale of supersized sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, entertainment venues and even street carts — any place regulated by the city’s health department. If the ban takes effect, which is likely, these places couldn’t sell sugar-loaded drinks larger than 16 fluid ounces.

Bloomberg himself is not overweight, but more than half of the adults in New York City are. In the Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, 70 percent of adults are overweight.

New Yorkers have been offered incentives aplenty to slim down — low-cost or free exercise classes, farmers’ markets, free cooking classes and more. But obesity rates keep rising, and experts have fingered non-nutritious, sugary drinks as a leading culprit. They are loaded with calories but don’t leave people feeling filled up. And restaurants and convenience stores price their drinks so as to encourage people to buy the larger sizes.

As Bloomberg noted in an opinion piece published in USA Today, “Critics claim this policy restricts choice. But, currently, people almost never have the choice to purchase as small as an 8-ounce beverage, which was considered adequate for decades.”

The New York City mayor is of course being excoriated by the soft drink industry, the restaurant industry and the many critics who seem to think that living in the land of exceptionalism endows them with the right to drink all of the Big Gulps their hearts desire, then leave it to the overburdened health care system to deal with the consequences.

We should be rooting for Bloomberg’s soda downsizing plan to succeed, and hope that other mayors and even governors have the guts to copy it. Seriously, nobody needs a 32-ounce soda. If you’re worried about staying hydrated — an advantage that the soft drink industry touts for its products — there’s this stuff called water. It’s really pretty good, and cheap right out of the tap.

I wish James great success in losing weight and inspiring his constituents to follow his lead. Rule Number One: Stay away from supersized sodas.

But Bloomberg has correctly discerned that motivation and cheerleeding by themselves won’t get America slimmed down.

That’s a huge task and it will require some bold changes in public policy.

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