NYC proposes ban on large sodas at restaurants

Posted May 31, 2012, at 4:57 p.m.

NEW YORK — Want to super-size that soda? Sorry, but in New York City you could be out of luck.

In his latest effort to fight obesity in this era of Big Gulps and triple bacon cheeseburgers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing an unprecedented ban on large servings of soda and other sugary drinks at restaurants, delis, sports arenas and movie theaters.

Drinks would be limited to 16 ounces, which is considered a small at many fast-food joints.

“The percentage of the population that is obese is skyrocketing,” Bloomberg said Thursday on MSNBC. He added: “We’ve got to do something.”

It is the first time an American city has directly attempted to limit soda portion sizes, and opponents again accused the three-term mayor of creating a “nanny state” and robbing New Yorkers of the right to choose for themselves.

But city officials said they believe the plan — expected to win approval from the Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health and take effect as soon as March — will ultimately prove popular and push governments around the U.S. to adopt similar rules.

“We have a crisis of obesity,” said city Health Commissioner Thomas Farley. “People often go with the default choice, and if the default choice is something which is very unhealthy and is feeding into that health crisis, it’s appropriate for the government to say, ‘No, we think the default choice should be healthier.’”

The soft drink industry responded with scathing criticism, even as the administration said it felt certain the companies could simply trim back their offerings from 20-ounce bottles to 16-ounce bottles — reversing a trend that has been under way for decades. In the 1950s, McDonald’s offered only one size for soft drinks: 7 ounces, city officials said.

Coca-Cola called the ban an “arbitrary mandate.”

“The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes,” the company said in a statement. “New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase.”

The ban would apply only to sweetened drinks over 16 ounces that contain more than 25 calories per 8 ounces. (A 12-ounce can of Coke has about 140 calories.) It would not affect diet soda or any drink that is at least half milk or milk substitute.

Nor would it apply to drinks sold in supermarkets or convenience stores, unless those businesses primarily sell foods meant to be eaten right away. Businesses would face fines of $200 per failed inspection.

City officials said some calorie-heavy drinks such as Starbucks Frappuccinos would probably be exempted because of their dairy content, while the Slurpees at 7-Eleven wouldn’t be affected because the stores are regulated as groceries.

Bloomberg said people who want to guzzle more than 16 ounces would still be free to order more than one drink. But he said restricting sodas to 16 ounces each could still help curb consumption.

“You tend to eat all of the food in the container. If it’s bigger, you eat more. If somebody put a smaller glass or plate or bowl in front of you, you would eat less,” he said.

In announcing the proposal, health officials cited research linking sugary drinks to rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

“Sugar drinks are not the entire obesity epidemic, but they are uniquely, strongly associated with this rise in obesity over the last 30 years,” Farley said. “There’s something about sugar water, as a product, which leads to long-term weight gain.”

At a Burger King in Manhattan, retired postal worker Bobby Brown didn’t like the mayor’s idea, saying people should be “free to choose what they drink or eat.”

But Joseph Alan, a chauffeur eating at a nearby Subway, said his overweight friends’ eating habits ultimately affect him, too: “I tell them, ‘This is affecting our insurance, because charges go up more treating people with diabetes and other health problems. I don’t want to pay more for health insurance so people have these drinks!’”

Under Bloomberg, New York has campaigned aggressively against obesity, outlawing trans fats in french fries and other restaurant food and forcing chain restaurants to list calories on menus. The mayor has also led efforts to ban smoking in the city’s bars, restaurants, parks and beaches.

His administration has tried other ways to discourage soda consumption. The mayor supported a state tax on sodas, but the measure died in the Legislature, and he tried to restrict the use of food stamps to buy soda, an idea federal regulators rejected.

Mark Kalinowski, an analyst with Janney Capital Markets who covers companies including McDonald’s, said it is unlikely the ban will be enacted. “Folks who want to buy Big Gulps and Frappuccinos, a lot of those customers, you’re only going to be able to take it away from them by prying it out of their cold, dead hands,” he said.

And if it does go into effect, he said, customers will probably just respond by ordering two drinks.

“Maybe the mayor can outlaw all soft drinks and outlaw all fun while he’s at it,” Kalinowski scoffed.

AP Food Industry Writer Candice Choi and writers Karen Matthews and Verena Dobnik contributed to this report.

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