“I think it’s probably well-intentioned but possibly not well
thought out,” said David Hunt, a co-owner of Coogan’s Restaurant (shown here).
In an 8-0-1 vote, the New York City Health Department voted on Thurs., Sept. 13th, to ban the sale of sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces.
The intricacies of the ban are far from simple, leading many to believe that the measure may not be doing enough to combat obesity.
The unprecedented ban, originally proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the spring, applies to such sugary drinks as energy drinks and sodas, but does not apply to alcoholic beverages, fruit juices, or drinks that contain more than 50% milk.
And the complications do not stop there.
The ban only applies to the sale of such beverages in establishments that receive inspection ratings from the Health Department. This category includes restaurants, street vendors, and movie theater concession stands, but it does not include convenience stores or vending machines.
This loophole in the ban has lead to the criticism that the measure is not comprehensive enough in its effort to fight the rise obesity.
“A person could just buy two smaller drinks,” said Melissa Katzman, who works in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
Katzman identifies a key question, especially for local restaurant owners: Will customers really buy two drinks?
“It could be positive with people just buying more drinks,” said Kazi Islam, who manages the Dallas BBQ at 3956 Broadway, at the corner of 166th Street.
“But I lean more towards negative,” added Islam. “We cannot charge the customers as much [for a smaller drink]. The price has to come down, and we take a hit.”
And even if customers do decide to buy more soda, where will they buy it from?
Josue Feliz, who manages the McDonald’s Restaurant at 170th Street and Broadway worries about losing customers who prefer a larger drink.
“They will go where they can buy the soda,” Feliz said. “[The ban] should be for every store.”
In a statement, Councilmember Robert Jackson spoke to the fear of losing business and what he calls the “inequity” of the ban and its loophole.
“It doesn’t make sense that one establishment will be banned from selling these drinks, but right next door a bodega will be able to sell these larger sugary drinks,” Councilmember Jackson said. “If the true goal is to curb consumers’ behavior then this inequitable policy misses the mark.”
Councilmember Jackson also characterized the measure as an unwelcome government intrusion into private life.
“As a society, we have the responsibility to educate for self-empowerment and not dictate to free minded adults what they can or cannot consume,” he said.
Members of the New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, an advocacy group that is backed by the beverage industry, were also quick to denounce the decision.
“The fix was in from the beginning, and the Mayor’s handpicked board followed their orders by passing this discriminatory ban; but it has not passed with the support of New Yorkers,” said Liz Berman, president of Continental Food & Beverage, Inc., and chairwoman of New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. “It’s sad that the board wants to limit our choices. We are smart enough to make our own decisions about what to eat and drink.”
Moreover, recent surveys have indicated that a majority of New Yorkers do not approve of the ban. In a poll cited by The New York Times, 60 percent of New Yorkers believe the ban to be a “bad idea” and the coalition claims that more than 250,000 New Yorkers have signed on to the Coalition.
Northern Manhattan residents, however, seem to be divided on the issue.
“I think it absolutely is [a step in the right direction],” said Larkin McReynolds, an Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology. “Given the rise of obesity and how it’s linked to diabetes, it’s probably necessary.”
Other residents were not quite so sure.
“Obesity didn’t start with 16-ounce colas,” said Emily Mesler, a local resident. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a large, large problem.”
Mesler even spoke of alternatives to the bill, strategies that she sees as being more effective, such as “increasing education in schools about proper nutrition.”
Residents did seem to agree that obesity is a widespread problem that to be actively combated, but opinion on whether the current soda ban is helping was far from unanimous.
“I think it’s probably well-intentioned, but possibly not well thought out,” said David Hunt, who co-owns Coogan’s Restaurant with Peter Walsh and Tess O’Connor-McDade.
Councilmember Jackson agreed.
“Real alternatives to the soda ban include early and long term education that starts in schools, community partnerships with health providers, and investment in programs that promote healthy lifestyles with access to nutrition and recreational activities,” he added.
The ban will take effect in six months but is expected to meet considerable legal resistance from the soda industry.
The Coalition, for one, has pledged to continue to fight against the ban’s implementation.
“This is not the end,” said spokesperson Eliot Hoff. “We are exploring legal options and all other avenues available to us.”