In my column for CNN, put in a good word for Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to fight obesity:
Nobody seems to have a positive word for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban oversized servings of sugary drinks in New York's food-service establishments.
The mayor has been decried as a nanny. He has been accused of selective enforcement. (A Starbucks 20 ounce drink can have more than 500 calories, but will be exempt from the ban because it contains more than 50% milk.) The beverage industry complains that solutions to the obesity problem ought to be more "comprehensive." One important conservative magazine called the mayor's actions a form of "fascism."
So let's defy the trend here and say: Good for Bloomberg. Obesity is America's most important public health problem, and the mayor has led the way against it. This latest idea may or may not yield results. But it is already raising awareness. Even if it fails to become law, it ought to prod the beverage industry into acting as more responsible corporate citizens.
Sugary drinks now provide 7% of the calories in the American diet, the largest single national source of calories. Teen boys average more than a quart of sugary soda per day. Even adults who say they are trying to lose weight still drink more two 12-ounces cans per day, on average.
There is little doubt about the serious health effects of sugary soda. Just one soda a day doubles a woman's risk of diabetes, according to the Harvard Journals of Public Health. Two sodas raises her risk of heart disease by 40%.
Americans drink more soda for the very simple reason: it's getting cheaper. The inflation-adjusted price of soda has declined by an estimated 48% over the past 20 years. Improvements in packaging account for much of this price decline. It costs barely anything more to manufacture a 64-ounce "double gulp" container than to produce the former standard sizes.
Some object that the mayor's proposal to restrict serving sizes will restrict liberty. But the liberty restricted is not the liberty of the soda-drinker. If they wish, soda drinkers can buy a 2-liter bottle of soda at the grocery for about $1.70 and pour as much of it down their throats as they wish. The liberty that is being restricted is the liberty of the soda seller to manipulate known human weaknesses to the seller's advantage and the buyer's detriment.
Human beings are not reasoning machines. We are animals who have inherited certain propensities not always well-adapted to modern urban life. We evolved in conditions of food scarcity. Our bodies have adapted to store food energy against famine; our subrational minds crave sweetness. The sugary beverage industry has invested massively to understand better how to use our very human natures against us.