Thursday, June 07, 2012

What ban?

Everybody seems to be saying that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed to ban sodas in containers larger than 16 ounces.

What ban?

My version: Bloomberg has proposed a cup-size restriction for selected soda sales in restaurants, movie theaters, and vending carts. 

You may agree or disagree with this proposed rule.  All I want to say is that trying out the rule has some merit.  There is a large literature showing that our brains mis-estimate the food energy content in large beverages, and our bodies physiologically mis-regulate liquid Calories.  Quite possibly, people will get as much -- maybe even more -- utility or satisfaction from a smaller cup.  Quite possibly, a smaller cup will be as profitable for NYC businesses.  Quite possibly, this rule offers a modest public health benefit at reasonably low cost in terms of money and personal well-being.  All of these possibilities are eminently testable.  I think it would be great to see NYC try out this policy on a pilot basis, and do a high-quality study showing the impact on health and economic outcomes.  Pursuing this pilot is a sober and sensible proposal.

If the pilot succeeds in promoting public health with few harmful side-effects for businesses and customer satisfaction, I would favor it.

I am not surprised that right-wing critics have gone all Defcon 1 about this proposal.  They say this proposal will cause a loss of liberty.  Puh-lease.  We are talking about the difference between a 12-oz and a 20-oz cup of soda in a movie theater.  We have a thousand personal liberties to worry about long before I will start to worry about the right to a particular soda cup size.

What really surprises me is that progressive supporters of the rule endorse the right-wing narrative about how this proposal will affect liberty.  What do I mean?  Consider Mark Bittman's column at the NYT this week:
On a more personal level, we hear things like, “if people want to be obese, that’s their prerogative.”Certainly. And if people want to ride motorcycles without helmets or smoke cigarettes that’s their prerogative, too. But it’s the nanny-state’s prerogative to protect the rest of us from their idiotic behavior....  To (loosely) paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, your right to harm yourself stops when I have to pay for it. And just as we all pay for the ravages of smoking, we all pay for the harmful effects of Coke, Snapple and Gatorade.
In essense, Mark Bittman agrees with conservative critics that the cup-size rule is part of a broader agenda to forbid personal choices that could make us fat. Bittman says it is okay for the government to take away our liberty to make such choices, because we share the same insurance risk pools, so one person's medical costs affect another person's taxes and insurance premiums.

I don't think shared risk pools should give policy-makers the right to ignore personal choices cavalierly.  When describing sensible public policies that override personal choices, I would not toss in the term "nanny-state."  Unlike "Yankee Doodle" and "queer," there are poor prospects for converting "nanny-state" or "ban" from a term of insult to a term of praise.  A key feature of obesity policy is that many individuals themselves recognize that their short-term impulses are contradicting their own true long-term desires for health and satisfaction and good food and drink.  The NYC proposal may better serve the long-term desires of most people most of the time.

If this cup-size proposal really threatened important personal liberties, I would oppose it.

Why are this policy's supporters undermining its political prospects by making it out to be more than it is?  There is no ban.


Nicole Tichenor said...

Who's going to conduct the high-quality study? Any sense if that's part of the plan? Would be a big shame if it's not...

Advice for Skin Care said...
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Daniel said...

Agree that you've got a point here: that there are many other more important personal liberties to worry about rather than the size of sodas.

But at what point does the fundamental principle become important? One could argue that the degree of "importance" of the liberty isn't the point at all.

PS: I discovered your blog just a few days ago and have really enjoyed catching up on your Farm Bill coverage. Good stuff here.

Dan @ Casual Kitchen

Jack Everitt said...

You're dead right, there is no ban. Yet so many writers say there is, like Bittman and Corby Kummer.

It's pretty said that so many are fighting for the Right to have a Large Cup.

Aliza R. Wasserman said...

mostly just wanted to say that this is a hysterically award-winning sentence: " Unlike "Yankee Doodle" and "queer," there are poor prospects for converting "nanny-state" or "ban" from a term of insult to a term of praise." :)

Vanessa said...

I read Bittman’s article before I read yours and while I agree with him, I also agree that this issue has become over-politicezed. I hope your diplomatic and rational approach continues to extend to other food policy issues. I’ll be reading!