Sunday, June 03, 2012

Fizzy legislation

I realize this is an unpopular view, but I'm kind of OK with - make that essentially in favor of - the Bloomberg giant-soda ban. Easy for me to say, because I have trouble finishing a half-size can of the stuff,* and don't really like soda, and on the rare occasions I'm up for it, can absolutely go either way re: diet vs. regular. Oh, and I don't live in the city.

Do I think the ban will reverse all negative health trends associated with How Americans Eat Today? No, but I think the counterarguments are mostly pointless, and that the law has the potential to do some good. If it had the potential to do all the good in the world, I'd say that then we'd also have good reason to complain about it, because no one (Jane Brody?) wants government-mandated kale side dishes.


-We've completely forgotten what sensible portions consist of. If you watch an old TV show ("The Dick Van Dyke Show," say), you might notice that the actors, even the ones playing "fat" characters, are slim, but then you remember that this is often still the case, because everyone on TV must be baseline conventionally attractive. But you'll also notice that the portions characters are shown as eating are tiny. The cereal Richie eats in the morning comes in a tiny box, like from a multi-variety pack, or from a "family" pack that's about the size of what we'd consider a bowl of cereal today. And so on. We need to get back to a different idea of what "a soda" consists of, and the market isn't going to get us there. This law is brilliant in that it insists on showing us what a reasonable amount consists of, but doesn't insist we follow those instructions.

-The main counterargument (other than 'wah, nanny state') this move has gotten is that it's still legal to drink your own weight in soda, as long as you have it in 16-oz-or-less intervals. Clever, yes, those who point this out. But this loophole is integral - the point of the law is not to make it illegal to consume massive quantities of soda. It's to make it illegal for you to end up with a bucket of soda without even thinking about it. For a bucket to be a default. That consuming soda continuously day-in and day-out remains legal means, if nothing else, that the nanny-state argument falls short. If downing soda by the kegful happens to be your pleasure, Big Brother isn't coming for you with handcuffs or so much as a fine.

-'But then they'll come for my [whichever greasy food].' When the issue with soda is that it a) has no nutritional value, and b) doesn't, evidently, let your body know you've 'eaten'. You're in all likelihood in far more danger of eating too much junk because that's what's subsidized than in the government knocking on your door to ask if you really need a second helping of the Haagen Dazs.

-'But people will still eat unhealthy food, and it's not as if a smaller/diet soda cancels it out! You see those foolish people with their double cheeseburger and diet Coke, like that matters!' That the law doesn't address all ways people eat badly is, if anything, a reason to approve of it more. (See above.)

-'But alcohol doesn't have nutritional value, either!' And typically, if you're going to drink more than 16 ounces of the stuff, you're going to have to buy more than one beverage. Plus, red wine, antioxidants, French and Italian people not getting fat, prohibition would cause a different host of problems, and so on.

-There isn't really a fat-acceptance-movement counterargument, because there the issue is health at any size, which in soda terms means that some people avoid 32-ounce Cokes and still weigh 400 pounds.

-The best counter-counterarguments, as far as I can tell, are a) some people - not many, but some - need to gain weight, and if soda isn't the healthiest way to do it, it's a cheap source of easy-for-many-to-down calories, and b) soda isn't a controlled substance, and there's something inherently arbitrary and contrarian-libertarian-response-eliciting about the government deciding precisely how many ounces are and are not OK. I don't find these two all that convincing.

-There's also, whenever soda comes up, the quasi-patronizing class argument - YPIS if you don't personally consume soda's half your own height on a regular basis. Not convinced here either. I suspect that this law is about impacting the behavior of the young-and-thus-still-malleable, and if jumbo-soda consumption is a bit of a class indicator among adults, it's far less of one among preteens and teens. (If mass-produced junk food was consumed by students at a girls' school on the Upper East Side, granted 100 years ago...) And if we're going to go with the now-classic 'but this vice is all They have to look forward to, with their horrible tragic poor-person jobs that aren't investment banking or fashion editing', we need only remember that the law does not prohibit soda consumption, or even filling your bathtub with soda and getting a straw.

PG, anyone else keen on telling me why I'm wrong, have at it.

*Can't usually finish a coffee, either. And yet, I'm confident that I could win a pasta-eating contest. The human body works in mysterious ways.


Britta said...

I've been called a trust-funded, over-privileged bitch on a certain feminist website I never read anymore for being in support of a soda tax. Another thing about the ban contra YPIS is it doesn't prohibit stores from selling 2L bottles, which are presumably cheaper than buying them from a restaurant/place selling "single"-size servings, so if you need to mainline semi-toxic sugar water which melts off your teeth enamel and leaches your bones of calcium for health purposes, you can still do it.

Britta said...

*I mean, do it in a cost-affordable manner.

Britta said...

Oh, also (as I comment repeatedly semi-crazy style), the "you're eating a cheeseburger, so why bother with a diet coke" doesn't really make sense (besides the fact that a 32oz coke has like, 800 calories, which is MORE than the cheeseburger), when you realize that most weight gain is caused by small micro-choices which by themselves don't lead to weight gain. In college I heard a talk by a professor of fat metabolism, and basically a 10lb weight gain over the course of the year is about 150 extra calories a day, or 1 oreo cookie. The decision: do I eat 1 cookie or 2, is kind of a "I ate one cookie, why not another" sort, but actually these things do matter. Likewise, do I drink coke with lunch every day (240 cal) or water is the difference between (given this average metabolism), 20 lbs over the course of a year. In fact, it would be better to eat 2 oreos after lunch, because you would feel fuller.

Also this, "I've already fell off the wagon, why not just keep at it" is a product of a diet mentality most Americans are inculcated in. I read a psych experiment where they had women on a diet and women not on a diet eat a large cookie (or something like that). The women not on a diet ate one cookie and felt full so they stopped, and the women on a diet ate, like, 3 cookies, the attitude being, "we've blown our diet, let's keep going." I feel like we're so programed not to view food as a source of nutrients and pleasure that we don't really have a sense of how to eat or not eat, and corporations who have a lot at stake selling stuff aren't going to help us out.

(And yes, I am procrastinating)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

True enough re: giant bottles at stores. I suppose here, some would counter that the 'pleasure' is in getting the beverage out, which is going to cost more if 32oz means two drinks rather than one. But as 'rights' go, the right to drink a jumbo soda at a place, at market rate, to have all those conditions met... Although I do see a logistical problem in places where you get the cup and then pick your own soda, unsupervised, from several options. Not insurmountable, but a problem all the same.

I think this law is actually better than a tax, because the message it sends is moderation. A can of soda every so often isn't doing anyone in, whereas the tub-size kind of is. So a law that simply shows you what "a soda" looks like manages to sidestep the idea that soda is "bad," in which case why not have a ton once you're having any at all.

Re: diet soda with fatty meal, I think the issue there is that allegedly there are people who would restrain themselves but who think a "diet" beverage magically cancels out the rest. And, maybe? But it would seem better to get your calories from actual food (hamburger, kale frittata) than from soda. And I do kind of doubt that anyone's making up the calories they would have had from a large sweetened soda with whatever extra food this might lead them to order.

Kayla said...

With regard to alcohol, too, portions used to be so much smaller. Martini glasses and wine glasses just keep getting bigger (I'm thinking of the brandy-poisoning scene in The Lady Vanishes--they look like they're drinking out of doll's cups!)

That'd be a lot harder to regulate, though, since a glass of wine or cocktail doesn't come prepackaged.

PG said...

I prefer the tax because of its demonstrated effectiveness in other areas (e.g. in reducing cigarette smoking) and, yay revenue, but this is no doubt a sign of my privilege. Such sales taxes are regressive, but to me that's kind of the point: it should be expensive to have this habit. Also, you can't be literally addicted to soda specifically (though there's arguments for sugar/caffeine addictions being real things, one can obtain the chemicals through many venues other than soda), whereas nicotine addiction is proven and tobacco is pretty much the only non-prescription method of getting nicotine.

Re alcohol: And typically, if you're going to drink more than 16 ounces of the stuff, you're going to have to buy more than one beverage.

Yes, this is the Four Loko thing I was so interested in a while back. People have been lobbying the FTC to be even stricter in its regulation of the size/resealability of containers. And of course states have the authority to ban Four Loko entirely.

Kayla said...

What about the argument that banning soda is classist, because the law excepts dairy drinks, fruit juices and alcoholic beverages -- in other words, equally unhealthy, equally high-calorie and sometimes equally large beverages more commonly drunk by richer people? If any size limitation is imposed, shouldn't it apply to all beverages (except water)? And hey, why a size limitation and not a calorie limitation?

The Economist's libertarianish blogger has an opinion too:

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That the law excludes milk and fruit juice would seem reasonable, because these are definitive sources of nutrition. (Whole fruit's supposed to be better, but it would seem classist, if anything, to then go and ban the next best alternative.) If giant prepackaged fruit drinks are not banned, this would seem to cover the classism angle, because off-brand Sunny D is not exactly lining the aisles of Whole Foods.

But there is something viscerally odd about New York celebrating $10 juice and at least tolerating iced lattes and farm-to-table milkshakes (mmm, Ronnybrook), even if nutrition goes far in explaining why one calorie-containing beverage would be acceptable but not another. It's normal that this kind of thing would arouse different-punishments-for-crack-than-cocaine types of concerns.

As for whether it's ever OK for the government to intervene when Problem A is severely impacting the poor-to-working-class and comparable Problem B is having a negligible impact on the UMC-to-rich... maybe? It certainly makes a difference if by "intervene" what's meant is jail time versus having one's "right" to a giant soda all in one cup interfered with. Something similar came up here re: fattening foods in haute and not-so-haute venues, although the issue there wasn't the government, just the tsk-tsk brigade. But in the case of beverages, if jumbo-soda drinkers are dealing with an obesity-and-associated-illnesses crisis, while fancy-juice devotees are not, even if the juice weren't however much healthier, if the manner of consumption is different, if the place they take in a diet is different, then I'm not sure why the government couldn't take the larger picture into account.

Also, FWIW, I'm not sure Frappuccinos are a rich-person drink. They're certainly more expensive than fountain sodas, but as a class signifier, at least in the U.S., the difference is probably slight.

Kayla said...

I guess I would feel better about the class implications of the ban if I thought there was any prospect it would actually work.

PG said...


What would constitute the ban "working"?

I figure it's basically an anti-SuperSize measure: people will upgrade to a "value-size" option if it costs only pennies more. However, if the only size is 8 oz, and it costs twice as much to get 16 oz of beverage plus you have to lug around two containers, people are likely to content themselves with the single-serving size.

The regulation thus probably would be more effective in reducing calorie consumption among lower-income people than measures like posting calorie counts on menu boards, which are most effective among middle and upper class people. Lower-income consumers were buying based on value, so simply having more information about nutritional content didn't have much effect.