Banning large sugar sweetened drinks is a start

In an effort to combat obesity and all the health problems that are associated with it, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced a plan to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened drinks to 16 ounces or less. It also includes a $200 fine to vendors who violate it. If passed, the ban could take place as early as next March. The ban would not include diet drinks, juice-based drinks, or alcoholic beverages. It would also not include drinks sold at convenience or grocery stores.

So, my first reaction was, “Um, what’s the point? If I can’t get a large soda at the movie theater or the drive-thru, what’s stopping me from swinging by my local 7-Eleven to get my fill?”

It didn’t make sense to me.  But the more I think about it, I applaud the effort. I mean, you have to start somewhere, right? And who needs 32 ounces of soda at the movie theater? It just disrupts the movie with bathroom breaks. Seriously, though, Mr. Bloomberg should be recognized for his public health efforts. He banned both smoking and trans fats at restaurants, in addition to requiring restaurants to post their health grades in their windows. For a city in which at least half of the people are overweight or obese, I think it’s a fair start.

The New York City Beverage Association is speaking out against the ban; its members feel that the beverage industry is being singled out. Beverage companies say that drinks alone are not the cause of the obesity problem in the US. Are they correct? Obesity is a huge problem (forgive the pun) in this country. It’s outright scary. But it’s multi-factorial. People don’t exercise enough. Physical education programs are being cut from school curricula. Fast food is cheap and convenient. Healthy food is more expensive and doesn’t come from a drive-thru. And yes, portion sizes are huge. Think about a regular cheeseburger at McDonald’s versus the size of a burger at your local sports bar. When was the last time you saw a burger on a menu that was made of less than 1/3 lb of beef? The size of a bagel has increased three fold in the last 20 years. I’m also pretty sure that when I went to the movies as a kid, the “small” drink wasn’t as big as my head.

Another common argument against such policies is in reference to personal freedom. Let’s be honest – people aren’t exactly making the best choices with their “personal freedom” these days. The obesity rate is rising at an alarming rate, and so is the percentage of Americans without insurance or depending on government programs for healthcare. It is clear that obesity leads to multiple health problems. Should we encourage “personal freedoms” that can, and do, exacerbate these conditions? Especially if our tax money is funding them?

It’s a touchy area, I know. But as a taxpaying citizen and a physician who sees obesity and its consequences on a daily basis, I know that we have to start somewhere. And if it makes people a little angry, then so be it.

Mandy Huggins is a sports medicine physician who blogs on her self-titled site, Dr. Mandy Huggins.

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