Sunday, June 10, 2012

Battle looms over proposed New York soda ban

The proposed ban by New York City on large sodas is sending ripples across the Big Apple ever since the plan was first unveiled by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week. Health officials have blasted the critics who have blasted the idea and the issue threatens to erupt into a full-fledged war very soon.

The plan – to limit single servings of full-calorie sodas, sports drinks and other beverages to no more than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters and other public venues – is aimed at curbing America’s obesity epidemic. Vendors face a $200 fine if they violate the ban, which would, however, not affect the size of beverages sold in grocery stores and similar retailers.

Latest statistics show two-thirds of the US population as being either overweight or obese, with officials particularly concerned about rising obesity rates among children.

The proposal will be submitted to the New York City Board of Health on Tuesday. The board will then vote on it after a three-month comment period and, if approved, the ban will be in place early next year.

In the meantime, the issue has generated much heat. In a nationwide American Mosaic Reuters/Ipsos poll on Friday, most Americans said they opposed the plan and don’t see how such a ban could help fight obesity.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they would oppose the introduction of a similar measure where they live, slamming the government’s Big Brother attitude towards dietary choices.

More than 70 per cent of the nearly 1,000 US adults polled also said they did not think the proposed rule would affect obesity rates. About 30 per cent disagreed, saying it could help curb obesity and lower healthcare costs.

At the same time, the majority of those polled said that if faced with a similar ban, they would significantly change their own drinking habits by switching to water, low-calorie drinks or diet beverages, or simply consuming fewer full-calorie drinks.

Fewer than one-third of respondents said they would buy additional servings to compensate for a such a ban. 

Proponents of the ban say sugary drinks, packed with excess calories, are consumed in large quantities. “Sugary beverages are a key driver of the obesity crisis that is killing 5,800 New Yorkers and costing the city $4 billion annually,” claims Bloomberg’s deputy press secretary Samantha Levine.

However, beverage makers defended their products, saying consumers have a right to choose what they drink and that their products are not to blame for the obesity epidemic.
“There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity,” says Katie Bayne, Coca Cola’s president of sparkling beverages in North America, in an exclusive interview with USA Today.

In fact, she says, from 1999 to 2010 when obesity was rising sugar intake from beverages was decreasing – while sugars from soda consumption fell 39 per cent the percentage of obese children jumped 13 per cent and adults 7 per cent.

American Beverage Association spokeswoman Karen Hanretty also defended the industry’s response and said there was little support for Bloomberg’s proposal. Many people think the plan “has gone too far with a proposal that will do nothing to reduce the serious problem of obesity in America,” she said.

However, Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said targeting sugar-sweetened beverages made sense because they offered empty calories with no nutritional value.

New York’s health commissioner Thomas Farley can’t understand what the hullabaloo is all about.

“It’s not saying ‘no’ to people. It’s saying, ‘Are you sure? Do you really want that?’” he says. “It’s sending people a message while giving people the freedom to drink as much as they want.”

He said sugary drink consumption might just be part of the US obesity epidemic but maintained that such products were the largest single source of sugar in the diet and had a major impact on health. Reducing obesity by just 10 per cent in New York City would save about 500 lives a year, he added.

He draws a parallel between opposition to the proposed oversize soda ban and the initial opposition faced by the ban on smoking in public. Since the city banned indoor smoking in 2003, the number of adult smokers has fallen from roughly 20 per cent to 14 per cent.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out!

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