Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Empty Calories, Empty Gestures

The truck slipped over the Canada-U.S. border unnoticed, then crept
down rural roads on its way to New York City.

It arrived in pre-dawn darkness, and quietly pulled into a warehouse
where a crew waited to unload it.

But before they could begin, a van carrying eight men crashed through
the warehouse door and, armed with axes, began to attack the cargo.

When they were done, gallons of Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and assorted
other soft drinks, stored in 32-ounce containers, washed down the
gutters and into the drains.

One again, New Yorkers were safe against the scourge of large-portion
sugary drinks.

This, of course, is a bit of a fantasy with apologies to Eliot Ness.

But if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has his way, sugary drinks
more than 16 ounces in size will be banned at the city’s restaurants,
delis, food trucks, movie theaters and sporting arenas. This includes
energy drinks and pre-sweetened ice tea.

His motive? To help combat obesity.

If this sounds meddlesome, intrusive and a bit like Prohibition,
well, it is.

A bunch of politicians get on their moral high horse and set out to
eliminate the scourge of (fill in the blank) thus saving humanity and
ensuring reelection.

The reaction of New Yorkers has been, “Whaddaya, sumkinda wise guy?”
More than 50 per cent of them think it’s a bad idea, according to a
NY1-Marist poll.

And, like Prohibition, it won’t solve the problem that it is intended
to solve.

One of my favorite Prohibition stories told of a popular product
called “wine bricks” -- dehydrated slabs of pressed grapes and a
packet of yeast. Once purchased, you learned from the mockingly
worded label that you should “never mix contents in two gallons of
warm water to which you have added a pinch of yeast, and one pound of
sugar. If this mixture is left to stand in a cloth covered container
for two weeks, an alcoholic beverage will result, which is illegal.”

The point is that, like our Prohibition era forefathers, thirsty
citizens will find myriad ways to circumvent the law.
That won’t be difficult in New York. Grocery stores and many
convenience stores are regulated by the state and wouldn’t be

So New Yorkers will have to settle for two sixteen-ounce sodas. And
free refills.

Interestingly enough, Bloomberg appears to have the weight of the law
behind him. "There are so many examples where states impose standards
on consumer products sold within their borders," Michelle Mello, a
professor of law and public health at Harvard University told
Reuters. "It seems hard to believe that this would be singled out as
unreasonable by a court."

To give the Mayor his due, there is no question soft drinks can
contribute to health problems. The consumption of sugar-sweetened
soft drinks is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, dental
problems and low nutrient levels, according to a study in the
American Journal of Public Health.

In New York, Dr. Thomas Farley, the health commissioner, blames
sweetened drinks for up to half of the increase in city obesity rates
over the last 30 years.

But Bloomberg’s plan is hardly the road to a lean, fit and healthy
populace. It is, instead, paternalistic, misguided and essentially an
empty gesture.

Who’s going to enforce this ordinance? Will New York have soda pop
cops? Will this set the table for even more Draconian laws,
regulating portion sizes or ingredients?

The real answer lies is education. School districts in California
banned the sale of soft drinks on campus in 2003. And that’s how the
problem should be attacked. Teach your children well and the problem
diminishes over generations.

The other solution is to tax the hell out of sugary soft drinks. But
Bloomberg has too many political ambitions to play that card.

Disney understands the value of early education. This past week, it
became the first major media company to ban ads for junk food on its
television channels, radio stations and websites, hoping to stop kids
from eating badly by taking the temptation away.

I’ll drink to that.

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