Those were just a few of the epithets hurled at New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in May when he proposed a city-wide ban on sugary soft drinks sold in containers larger than 16 ounces. The proposal made national headlines and drew a sharp line between those who think that, for the sake of health, the public needs to be protected from temptation and those who think that people should be left alone to make their own choices.
As of September 13, the New York City Board of Health has approved this law, banning restaurants, mobile food carts, delis and concessions at movie theaters, stadiums or arenas from selling sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces.
Public health has been a central issue during Bloomberg’s term in office, and his previous proposals, such as banning smoking in restaurants and public spaces and eliminating high-calorie snacks from public schools, have been met with wide approval. This time, though, he may have gone too far—a recent poll found that 60% of New Yorkers oppose the ban.
There’s no denying that cutting obesity rates could have a positive benefit on public health, including cancer incidence. One study that tracked more than 900,000 US adults for 16 years found that an initial BMI ≥40 increased the risk of cancer mortality by more than 50% in men and more than 60% in women and was associated with higher risk of death due to esophageal, colorectal, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and kidney cancer, and to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Based on the relative risks found in this study and current patterns of overweight and obesity in the US, the authors concluded that, among adults age 50 years and older, as many as 14% of cancer deaths in men and 20% of those in women may be attributable to overweight and obesity.
That’s why leading public health organizations have come out in favor of more regulation of what we eat and drink. Recently the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting that HHSS “undertake a comprehensive examination and report on how the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is impacting the health of Americans.” The letter cited ACS Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity, which strongly recommend a reduction in dietary sugar.
Opponents, led by the beverage industry, argue that the ban on large-size sodas is an infringement on personal freedom and probably won’t contribute much to weight loss. According to New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a coalition of soft-drink makers and retail food stores, sugar-sweetened beverages account for only 7% of the calories in the average American’s diet and sales of “full calorie” sodas have declined since 1999, while the rate of obesity has gone up.