NYC bans big soft drinks

Tina Susman

Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK – New York Thursday became the first city in the nation to ban super-sized sugary drinks in restaurants, setting the stage for a legal challenge by the beverage industry, which calls the rule a violation of consumers’ rights to drink what they want even if it is destroying their health.

The Board of Health, which is appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, easily approved the rule, which will limit to 16 ounces the size of sodas and other sugary drinks sold in food-service establishments such as restaurants and delis.

Assuming it is not blocked by legal challenges, it would take effect in six months and impose a $200 fine on businesses found in violation.

Eight members voted yes, none opposed, and one board member, Sixto R. Caro, a doctor, abstained after saying he remained “skeptical” about how much good the rule would do to curb obesity.

Depending on the point of view, the rule is a violation of basic human rights; a measure to protect children from lives of diabetes, heart disease and other ills; an economic misstep; or a necessary move toward curbing New York’s obesity problem. But the law, which Bloomberg proposed last May, also led to a broader debate of how best to control the city’s and the nation’s collective weight problem.

In public comments that preceded the board’s vote, critics accused the city of failing to spend money to ensure children in poor, urban areas most affected by diabetes and other weight-related issues have after-school recreation programs or parks in which to exercise. They also said the rule would add to New York’s image as a “nanny” state where the mayor has imposed several health-related changes that have changed the face and ways of America’s largest city.

Those changes also have influenced other cities nationwide.

In 2008, New York became the first major urban area to require large restaurant chains to include calorie counts on menus. Similar laws have since been adopted elsewhere, and Wednesday McDonald’s began posting calorie counts on its menus nationwide. Bloomberg Wednesday praised McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson “for his leadership on this important public health issue.”

Last year, the city banned smoking in most public areas, including beaches, parks and pedestrian plazas. In 2006, it passed the nation’s first law requiring restaurants to drastically cut the use of artificial trans fats in prepared food. Bloomberg also has tried to encourage exercise by replacing traffic-choked areas such as Times Square with pedestrian plazas, and he has replaced precious parking spots with bicycle lanes.

According to the city, 58 percent of New Yorkers are overweight or obese, and nearly 40 percent of the city’s public school children are obese or overweight. Supporters of the soda rule blame the fizzy drinks for much of the problem, saying Americans consume an average of 40 gallons of sugary soda per person per year.

“It’s time to face the facts: Obesity is one of America’s most deadly problems, and sugary beverages are a leading cause of it,” Bloomberg said last week, after announcing that Weight Watchers had thrown its support behind the soda rule.

The rule does not affect grocery stores, which are controlled by the state.