Politics

06.02.12

Michael Tomasky: Mayor Bloomberg Is Right to Declare a War on Sugar

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's soda ban has come in for widespread ridicule and outrage. But the policy is exactly what Fat America needs, writes Michael Tomasky. Plus: Richard B. McKenzie disagrees—why it won't work

There’s only one way to say something like this, and it’s loud and proud and without apology: I wholeheartedly support Mike Bloomberg’s war on sugar. It’s unassailable as policy. Refined sugar is without question the worst foodstuff in the world for human health, and high-fructose corn syrup is little better. We are a fat country getting fatter and fatter, and these mountains of refined sugar that people ingest are a big part of the reason. The costs to the health-care system are enormous, so the public interest here is ridiculously obvious. Obesity is a killer. Are we to do nothing, in the name of the “liberty” that entitles millions of people to kill themselves however they please, whatever their diabetes treatments costs their insurers? We have this “liberty” business completely backward in this country, and if Bloomberg can start rebalancing individual freedom and the public good, God bless him, I say.

The surge in obesity is, of course, well-known and quite real. Before about 1980, 15 percent of American adults were obese. Now it’s close to 40 percent. Explanation? Handily enough, Lane Kenworthy of the University of Arizona blogged about this just yesterday. The standard explanation, he writes, is a combination of too much eating and too little physical activity. But Kenworthy shows that declining activity, while real to some extent, does not track with the sudden explosion in porcinity starting in 1980. Something else does, however—total calories in the food supply.

Click on the link above and look at the second chart and you will see that calories in the food supply tracks nearly perfectly with the rise in obesity levels beginning in the 1980s. And memory and common sense tell us that this is when it all started happening. Super-sized fries, Hungry Man Swanson dinners, Big Gulps, all started being laid before us around this time, as well as the explosion across the landscape of the family-casual restaurants that started serving grandmothers portions fit for Lyle Alzado.

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AFP / Getty Images (2) ; AP Photo (2)

Of course, change occurred nowhere else as it did at the movies. I recall the looks I used to get from those confused youngsters behind the counter when they asked me, roughly, “Wouldn’t you like to get a tub of popcorn three times larger for an extra 25 cents?” and I barked, “No, definitely not! And don’t even ask about the soda.” They were a symbol of that age of grotesquerie and excess, those 40-ounce sodas, every bit as much as gas-guzzling SUVs. And they’re indefensible. Completely empty calories. At least potato chips have potatoes. Snickers has nuts. But soda pop has refined sugar. Or corn syrup. There is nothing useful about them. And they have helped to create a crisis.

In New York City, Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs told me Friday that smoking still kills more people, but that line on the graph is heading down fast, while the obesity line is quickly trending up. Bloomberg had a public-policy problem on his hands, so he requested a task force to make recommendations to him concerning obesity, and this—banning most sugary drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces—was a key recommendation. “We’re trying to reset the norm here and get away from the super-sized norm,” she says. “People will pretty much limit their consumption to what is in front of them. If 16 ounces is what’s in front of them, they’ll typically be satisfied with that.”

It’s a policy designed to guide people toward a certain kind of behavior. This talk of “freedom” is absurd. No one’s freedom is being taken away. When the rule goes into effect, probably by September, assuming the city’s board of health votes it through (it's appointed by the mayor), New Yorkers will still be able to buy these beverages. And those who really feel that they will perish unless they have 32 ounces of Mountain Dew Code Red can simply buy two. Nothing is being banned, and no one’s being arrested.

A country with half of its adults living in a condition of obesity is literally sick. Under such conditions, the state has every right to take action on behalf of the common good.

Are bacon-cheeseburgers next? As a practical matter, no. Sodas are an easy target because there is nothing, nothing, nutritionally redeeming about them. But might there come a day when the New York City Department of Health mandates that burgers be limited to, say, four ounces? Indeed there might. And why not? Eight- and ten-ounce burgers are sick things.

We have a health crisis in this country. A country with half of its adults living in a condition of obesity is a sick country, quite literally, spending probably not billions but trillions on the associated illnesses and maladies. Under such conditions, the state has every right to take action on behalf of the common good. We once had an epidemic of traffic deaths. We didn’t ban driving. But we came up with a device that is a minor inconvenience at most. And so seatbelts became mandatory, and now the epidemic has receded. A few people still foolishly oppose seatbelts. But most of us accept them and understand that whatever little dollop of our freedom is taken away as we latch up is more than countervailed by the practical upside.

One day, if the country comes to its senses, we’ll reverse the obesity trend and, just as we now chuckle at the prevalence of smoking on Mad Men, we’ll say, “Can you believe people used to peddle this treacle in 64-ounce doses?” We will not only have done something about obesity. We’ll have won an important victory over Libertarianism Gone Wild, a far bigger threat to society than even Sunkist Orange.