Commentary: Bloomberg's big soda ban didn't go far enough for one Duke professor

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)March 24, 2013 

Neither Sarah Palin nor Gary Bennett was upset when a judge struck down New York’s “big soda ban” the day before it was supposed to go into effect last week.

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg had pushed through a ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces as a way to combat the obesity that cripples people and our health care system. Judge Milton Tingling, a N.C. Central University Law School graduate, ruled that the ban was “arbitrary and capricious.”

Former veep candidate Palin sought to politicize the ruling, ridiculously screeching “Government, stay out of my refrigerator.” She and others felt the proposal went too far.

Bennett, a Duke University social epidemiologist who studies why, what and how much we eat, thought it didn’t go far enough.

“It was symbolic and probably wouldn’t have worked anyway,” he said. “Most of us in the obesity world believe that ‘policy’ is the key to at least preventing new cases of obesity ... and the most effective solution is a surcharge on the consumption of things like sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Let’s see now. Bennett is an associate professor of psychology, global health and medicine at one of the nation’s top universities. Palin, to put it charitably, is not. Who’re you going to heed, especially since the surcharge on cigarettes is credited with contributing to a drop in the number of smokers? Perhaps a pop guzzler tax would have an equally salutary effect.

The ban would not restrict how much soda you could drink, despite what Chicken Littles such as Palin cluck. It would merely limit how much you could purchase in one cup. So sure, if you’re a pig – as I sometimes am – and feel you need 64 ounces of carbonated sugar water – as I sometimes do – you still could’ve gotten it. Just not in one big gulp.

Actually, you could get a Big Gulp, since the ban didn’t apply to convenience stores such as 7-11. Everywhere else, though, you could get your soda fix in four 16-ounce cups, or eight 8-ounce cups or 16 4-ounce cups.

An assault on life, liberty and the pursuit of heftiness? Hardly. With all of this talk about assaults on liberty, has anyone asked “Does the size of one’s cup – or bowl or plate – affect how much we consume?”

Yes, someone has asked.

And the answer?

“Absolutely and incontrovertibly,” Bennett said. “Not only is that the case, but the last 10 years of research have shown that we are completely unaware of how much we’re drinking when we’re drinking out of a cup that’s a larger portion size.

“Let me tell you a quick anecdote, one of my favorite studies on this question. People were brought into a laboratory and asked to eat soup. ... Half the people just had soup out of a bowl. The other half were directed to soup bowls attached to pipes” that surreptitiously replenished the bowls. No matter how much they ate, their bowls never emptied, he said.

“Say, homes, how can I get my hands on one of those bowls?” I thought to myself, but I asked “So, what happened?”

They kept eating long past the point of satiety, he said. Soup slurpers with the never-emptying bowls mindlessly ate, on average, 40 percent to 50 percent more soup than the other group.

The same thing happened with popcorn, when people munched from never-emptying buckets. “What’s even crazier about that,” he said, “is that they’ll even eat that popcorn when it’s stale.”

So, yeah, Bloomberg is right: Size does matter.

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