Oh, my head! Mayor Bloomberg wants to take his ban on large sodas statewide.
Now that his 12 years as mayor are winding down, Bloomberg, like Mary Poppins, is seeking other opportunities to guide wayward children. Unlike Mary Poppins, he has no sense of humor, flair or proportion.
Every now and then great societies produce successful leaders who mistakenly believe they know what is best for the unlucky, unwashed and undereducated masses.
Bloomberg has used his bully pulpit to push New Yorkers around as part of his decade-long nanny state crusade to transform city residents into healthier beings. He succeeded in banning smoking indoors and in public parks, barring restaurants from cooking with trans fats and requiring them to reduce salt content and post calorie counts.
Smoking has declined tremendously in New York. Tobacco taxes are prohibitively high. Scary antismoking ads haunt our waking consciousness.
Fighting obesity is Bloomberg’s latest crusade. And it’s a truly laudable goal, but with his typical hubris, Bloomberg goes too far.
His latest ban on sodas in serving sizes larger than 16 ounces, which takes effect on March 12, will burden small businesses and increase costs to consumers.
Supermarkets, 7-Elevens, other convenience stores and Starbucks are exempt. That puts New York’s mom-and-pop stores at a severe disadvantage, as the ban essentially enacts a policy that will force the local guys to reduce options while the Starbucks next door continues business as usual.
Because the exempt stores are state-regulated, Bloomberg’s beverage restrictions are unfairly and disproportionately applied. Many more minority- and immigrant-owned small businesses will be impacted.
I’ve learned that it’s hard enough being a New York City vendor, food truck operator or restaurant owner without having to contend with a myriad of uneven regulations that bar you from selling the same product your corporate state-regulated competitor does.
In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture rejected the city’s proposed two-year experiment to see if a soda purchase ban would reduce obesity and diabetes among low-income people who buy their groceries with food stamps.
In a victory for freedom of choice, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, affirmed the USDA’s “tradition of supporting and promoting incentive-based solutions” for low-income persons who rely on food stamps.
At the time Bloomberg vowed that his administration would “continue to pursue new and unconventional ways to combat the health problems that hurt New Yorkers and Americans from coast to coast.”
On the heels of the USDA smackdown, the city rushed out a new Health Department study, which showed that soda drinking patterns correlate closely with income levels and neighborhoods—as do eating arugula, sunbathing and visiting the Hamptons.
Several years ago the Health Department’s chief nutritionist wrote an email saying that “the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd” and warned that scientists would make “mincemeat of us.” At least mincemeat is healthy.
Nonetheless, a few months later, regulations banning large-size sodas were proposed.
Does New York have a weight problem? Sure we do. Fewer people seem to fit comfortably on buses and subways.
Bloomberg’s ban, however, makes it acceptable to further ostracize people for their genetics and personal choices.
Instead of assuming control of individual and business choices, city government should focus on increasing public recreation spaces, resolving economic and health care disparities and working with neighborhood organizations to bring healthier foods into low-income neighborhoods.
Enacting a ban is easier, but it infringes on individual liberty. “My body, my choice” shouldn’t be limited to reproductive rights.
Like the USDA, the city should seek to support and promote incentive-based solutions combating obesity, diabetes and the limited food choices given low-income persons.
Fortunately, there are fewer than 300 days remaining in the Nanny McBloomberg era. Unlike Mary Poppins, Bloomberg won’t be staying until the wind changes.
And unless the wind changes, New York’s small businesses will be stuck with a set of unfair and inconsistent regulations for a problem best solved by innovative health and wellness programs.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years. This column was published before a judge blocked the limits on sugary drink sizes, a ruling the mayor said he would appeal.