Relationships and Health
by Jhon Wlaschin, Ph.D.

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City is proposing a ban on sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 oz.  The mayor has made progress as a public health advocate by being among the first in the nation to enact a total ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and later restricting the use of trans-fats for restaurants serving fried food.  

Has the Mayor gone too far?
Photographer: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times. Click the photo to read more about Lee's work.
Some serious debate is going on among the city’s residents and although some obesity researchers like Kelly Brownell from Yale support the idea, others like Cornell’s Brian Wansink who’s book “Mindless Eating” describes how most of us consume far too many calories without realizing it, believe the proposed ban is too confrontational and “doomed to fail.”

Reading comments posted on the NY Times website attached to the news stories, I am struck by the passion people have for this issue on both sides.  Part of the emotion comes simply from a well known phenomenon called reactance.  People do not appreciated and become angered when limitations are made on their freedom to choose.  that spouses who try and control their partner’s health behavior such as a weight loss attempt often fail and harm the relationship if done in a way that makes the person feel bad about their behavior.

People also feel that this removes value from the way money is spent on drinks.  It is certainly cheaper to buy the extra large sizes.  Food companies and others who sell soft drinks such as movie theaters have relied heavily on the profit margin that come from selling sweetened water.  Gas stations and fast food establishments use the lure of the giant soda as a way to keep customers coming back for what seems to be a good deal for the pocket book in the short term but the quickly consumed excess calories pile up and contribute to weight gain in the longer term.

Many people feel the Mayor  would be wiser to educate his citizens about the hazards of excess soda consumption or spend more on programs like subsidizing gym memberships.  One opinion writer in the Times criticizes the mayor for not creating programs to help people to make better choices and then offers examples such as the changes school lunch programs have made by offering lower calorie drinks, and salad bars.   Aren’t these the same type of environmental controls the Mayor is prosing with the large size soda ban?

The problem is that unless you are living in a cave, you already know that drinking too much soda can lead to weight gain and in fact there has been a substantial decline in soda consumption over the last 15 years.  and other’s have pointed out, size matters, and people will consume most of what is given them without thinking.  Once smaller soda sizes become standard, people will not likely pine for the “Big Gulp” and they may be thinner for it .

The Mayor cannot throw money at this problem.  Making gym membership cheaper will not cause enough people to exercise.  More informational public health campaigns are welcome but do little to change behavior long term.   It is the environment that we as a society have constructed in the name of capitalism and instant gratification that has had the unfortunate consequence of making the population fatter.   We were smart enough to create such a system to solve the problem of hunger and now we should attempt to build a new culture that feeds people responsibly. 

Unless we don’t really care about our children becoming obese before they reach middle school. 

Limiting the size of soft drinks is a cost-effective nudge at encouraging people to make better choices.  New Yorkers hated the idea of a smoking ban in bars when it was first proposed and now breathing cleaner air on a night out in the city is universally accepted and applauded.    Bloomberg is not saying you can’t drink soda, he is just putting a speed bump in your way to get you to slow down.