Ever since news broke last week about the New York City’s ban on the sale of large sodas (anything over 16 oz), I’ve been surprised by the reactions of those closest to me. I, being someone that has just started a graduate program in public health and plan to work in obesity prevention research and policy making, immediately supported the ban and applauded NYC and Mayor Bloomberg. Yet many of the people who I’m closest to and love dearly (and who I know to be smart, logical, and compassionate people) are against it. They don’t get the reasoning behind it, feel that it’s stupid, feel that it’s pointless, feel that it’s constrictive. I disagree, and here is why…
From what I gather, there are two main camps that have issues with the soda ban—people who drink soda and feel that they are being imposed upon, and those who disagree with the regulation on principle and believe the government shouldn’t restrict individual choice.
To the soda drinkers:
First off, I know you aren’t stupid, and I know that you know that soda isn’t good for you. But just in case, here are a few highlights to remind you why you should maybe think about switching to water…
- Empty calories- a 12 oz can of Coke or Sprite contains 140 calories, and a 12 oz can of Sunkist or Mountain Dew delivers 170 calories. Even worse, these calories are not registered appropriately by your body, so you don’t get full from them. At least if you eat a candy bar, your body will realize it.
- High amounts of sugar (and with it, increased Type 2 Diabetes risk)- a 12 oz can of Coke contains 39 g of sugar (which is equal to 2.5 TABLESPOONS of sugar). A 12 oz can of Mountain Dew contains 46 g (almost 3 tablespoons). Again, you’d be better off with a Snickers bar (28 g sugar =1.75 tablespoons)
- Acid in soda wears away enamel in your teeth and causes cavities
Okay, so let’s say you know all of that, and you still want to drink a soda, and you just can’t/don’t want to limit yourself to a smaller portion size…
With the NYC Soda Ban, there is nothing stopping you from getting TWO 16 oz bottles of soda. Or you can buy a 6 oz drink at McDonald’s and get a refill. However, both of those options requires you, the consumer, to make the CONSCIOUS decision to get more. Making the split decision to upgrade to a large soda instead of a medium while at the drive thru is too simple to do, especially when you are able to do so for only pennies more.
Having to buy two separate drinks also gives you a LOGICAL and HEALTHY point at which to stop drinking! Instead of having a huge soda in front of you that you start mindlessly drinking until it’s all gone, you will have to consciously get up and go get a refill or open up a second bottle. At that point you can evaluate your consumption and decide whether to drink more. One of the great things about this regulation is that it makes people who will still drink soda more aware of how much they are drinking. It isn’t saying don’t drink—it’s saying drink LESS.
To the second camp, the people who think that government should stay out of the free market and that people should be able to buy what they want to buy, let’s imagine a scenario, that although a tad silly, I hope proves a point:
Today, a fair amount of people go the gas station from time to time and buy a standard pack of gummy bears to eat. An average gas station size bag of gummy bears weighs approximately 5.3 oz. Most people don’t eat gummy bears every day-- it’s considered a treat, right? You might mow down a bag every so often, but probably not every day, and definitely not multiple times every day.
Now imagine that by 2040, nearly half of the US population eats not only a bag of gummy worms everyday, but the equivalent of 3 bags of gummy worms (15 oz worth), all sold in ONE BIG BAG. And some people really, really like gummy bears and buy a huge bear each day that weights 80 oz.
Some people may only want a 5 oz bag of gummy bears, but have difficulty finding stores that sell such a small portion. So they get a larger bag and find themselves eating the whole thing because it’s just there. Or, maybe they go into a store wanting a 20 oz bag, but find they can get 30 oz for only pennies more (or maybe even the same price), so they upgrade to the larger size. Again, they didn’t really want the extra gummy bears, but they end up eating them because they were essentially free (and let’s face it, they taste amazing).
Now, I think we can all agree that if this was America’s current situation, it would be time to curb the damn gummy bear consumption in this country. There would be no godly reason that someone should be eating that many gummy bears every single day, let alone that someone should even be able to purchase a 80 oz gummy bear. If someone really wants that much gummy bear, they can buy multiple bags, and the Gummy Bear Industry wouldn't be any worse off for it.
Unfortunately, the current soda situation in America is not too far off from the scenario above (and actually, it’s a lot worse situation since soda doesn’t even fill you up like gummy bears do). The gummy bear ounces above are pretty consistent with the soda ounces that are ingested by the average American, both in the past and today. The original McDonald’s fountain drink served in 1955 was 7 oz (which is smaller than the kiddy size served today). A McDonald’s small today is 16 oz, a medium is 21 oz, and a large is 32 oz. Currently, the average amount of soda drank per capita, per day is 15 oz. And 7/11’s current Double Big Gulp is 50 oz—although they once sold a Team Gulp size that topped out at a crazy 128 oz.
In our pretend Gummy Bear obsessed world, it would be time for the government to step up, look out for its citizens, and put an end to the craziness. Instituting a law like the NYC’s Soda Ban wouldn’t stop people from eating gummy bears (it wouldn’t even aim to do so), but it would ensure that portion sizes would be more appropriate, and the healthier choice would become an easier choice. True, people could no longer buy a World’s Largest Gummy Bear or even a 15 oz bag worth, but are they really being hurt by that? They would still have access to smaller 5 oz bags of gummy bears, and those who really wanted to ingest more gummy bears could absolutely do so by buying multiple bags. However, in order to do so, they will have to make a conscious decision to eat more, and they will have to pay more for it-- neither of which I believe is too much to ask.
The NYC Soda Ban isn’t perfect, and it isn’t a cure-all. Yes, people will have to make adjustments to the way they do business and the way they live their lives, but I don’t think that should prevent NYC from trying a very worthwhile policy initiative. In addition, there will have to be a lot of other policies and health education programs implemented to truly make a different in the NYC obesity rates, but a soda ban is one small piece of the puzzle that aims to improve one huge risk factor of obesity.
I know I haven’t given you any hard facts or quoted any research that shows that a soda ban will work, but it exists if you look for it. I didn’t want to present scientific evidence however, because I think to the average person who doesn’t really give a rip about science, and just wants to be able to drink a damn soda, it’ll be lost. Which is absolutely okay. I wholeheartedly think the fundamental reason why we have such an issue with obesity/chronic disease epidemics and why we struggle to beat it is that we have made health too hard to understand, too difficult and confusing to achieve. I hope to change that in some way in my career as a public health professional. If you have questions or rebuttals, feel free to ask/comment/yell. Discourse is what this country needs to solve our nation’s issues, along with compassion and common sense.