Why I Desperately Want My City To Have A Soda Ban

Earlier this month, San Francisco lawmakers voted to approve health warnings on advertisements for sugary drinks.

The labels would read:

WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar leads to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.

They’re essentially forcing soda companies to advertise against themselves, as cigarette companies have done for years. And while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s not enough if we want to address the chronic illness caused at least in part by America's obsession with sugar, fat and processed foods.

Though it might seem Big Brother-y for the government to dictate how much liquid sugar we put into our bodies, we’ve shown that, collectively, we simply cannot control ourselves. Obesity rates are soaring in the U.S. More than 68.8% of adults are considered to be overweight or obese. It may seem antithetical to American ideals of personal freedom, but someone (or some regulatory body) needs to slap the proverbial hand away from the proverbial cookie jar.

Like tobacco, sugar is addictive. But even with warning labels on the packs themselves, cigarettes are still to blame for half of the deaths from major cancers. So, is slapping a warning on a paper cup enough to prevent people from ordering a massive soda at the movies?

Probably not, at least not by itself. And the health care costs associated with the diseases caused by these drinks — mainly obesity and diabetes — are far too great to just let it continue to go on this way.

In the U.S., obesity-related health care costs $190 billion annually, accounting for about 10% of all medical spending. Direct medical costs from diabetes totaled $176 billion. That’s $366 billion total — and that’s only factoring in two of the diseases caused in part by sugary-drink consumption.

Here in New York City, we've already tried and failed to solve this problem.

In 2012, NYC's former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, tried to ban the sale of any container of sugary drink larger than 16 ounces, hoping to lower the staggering obesity rates in the city.

But in July 2014, the New York State Court of Appeals struck down his proposed regulation, arguing that the city’s Board of Health did not have the authority to impose such a rule. So we never got to see what kind of results the regulation would have had.

Bloomberg did manage to pass an important food regulation in 2006, though, when he banned trans fats from all restaurants in NYC. This ban has produced very tangible results since its full implementation in 2008, and it serves as a good example of the potential public health benefits of a well-informed, thoughtful regulation.

A 2012 NYC Health Department study showed that in as little as two years after the regulation was put in place, it had made a considerable difference in ridding dangerous amounts of trans fats from New Yorkers’ diets, which could, in turn, lower the incidence of heart disease in the city.

After two years, researchers found that the average amount of trans fat at fast food chains in New York had dropped from 2.9 grams to 0.5 grams. (To give you some context: the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat to less than two grams a day.)

In other words, the ban paid off. In fact, the FDA has just banned trans fats in all processed foods in the U.S., deeming partially hydrogenated oils as "not generally safe." What once seemed to be a classic example of nanny-statism has become national policy nearly a decade later.

Which brings us back to soda and other absurdly sugary drinks. If you drink one soda a day, according to the AP, choosing the 16-ounce bottle rather than the 20-ounce bottle would save you 14,600 calories a year. That’s the equivalent of 70 Hershey bars — enough to add about four pounds of fat to a person’s body. Take away the 20-ounce option, and in a relatively short amount of time, significant health improvements could be made.

Of course, if people are really determined to guzzle soda, they will. That’s their prerogative, just as cigarette smokers are still allowed to light up, and adults can enjoy alcohol.

But regulations aren’t about removing individual freedoms; they’re about reducing the massive health care burden high levels of added, processed sugar place on society. What’s the harm in placing some regulations on a substance we know to be harmful in large quantities? If there’s a way to decrease the incidence of obesity and other sugar-related diseases in a pretty simple, noninvasive way — like reducing the legal size of a single bottle of soda — why not try it out?

We need help. So much of the national discourse over the past few years has focused on Obamacare and our nation’s inability to pay the long-term costs of social services, and so little has been about our self-inflicted diseases. Warning labels — while they’re a good place to start — just aren’t a drastic enough measure to combat the crisis in which we find ourselves.

What do you think?

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