Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration received a major setback March 11 when a judge halted its plan to limit the size of sugary drinks in New York City. The mayor had hoped the law would slow the pace of the obesity epidemic by limiting the number of empty calories citizens slurp daily. Although the link between sugary drinks and obesity is only circumstantial, most public-health experts strongly endorsed the move. The average American takes in about 170 calories a day from sugary drinks, and our consumption has doubled in the past few decades, mirroring the rise in obesity. Some project that the risk of obesity increases 1.6-fold for each soda consumed—perhaps because sugary soda usually doesn’t result in a feeling of satiety.
I have just two words for celebrants: seat belts. Since 1968 federal law has required car manufacturers to place seat belts in all new cars. In 1984 New York was the first state to mandate wearing a seat belt, and since then, all states but New Hampshire (whose motto is “Live Free or Die”) have passed similar laws. A majority of states, including many red states like Oklahoma and Texas, have adopted a “primary enforcement” law that permits police to stop and ticket a driver or passenger solely for not wearing a seat belt.
The results are indisputable: between 1975 and 2009, seat belts saved more than 260,000 lives, according to a study by the Department of Transportation. Furthermore, millions of people have escaped serious injury, billions of dollars have been saved, and countless families have avoided unthinkable heartbreak.
The argument for restricting big sugary drinks now is the same as for seat belts then: contrary to popular belief, government actually is in a position, by using laws and financial disincentives, to make people do something that, despite that it is good for them, they otherwise would not do.
The simple truth is this: we are not perfect and need a little help now and again, especially in those tasks that are annoying or mildly unpleasant—buckling up, slimming down, flossing our teeth, and touching our toes. The coercive power of government, by talking to us through legislation, pushes us in the right direction toward goals to which we all aspire. To pass a law limiting sugary drinks to 16 ounces is not an example of overreach, but rather promising evidence that decades of governmental underreach in the realm of public health may finally be coming to an end.