Brad Hirschfield: Is NYC's proposed ban on large, sugary drinks ethical?

May 31, 2012

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in the city?s restaurants, delis and movie theaters in the hopes of combating obesity ? an expansion of his administration?s efforts to encourage healthy behavior by limiting residents? choices.

Is this good public policy that will foster public health, or is the government overstepping its boundaries?

Brad Hirschfield discussed the ethics behind this issue and more Thursday at 1 p.m. ET.

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So, has Mayor Bloomberg become a big soda jerk?  Is his proposal another example of the nanny state gone wild?  Or, is his proposal to ban large size drinks just the right item to put on our menu of responses to the growing public health challenge of obesity?


As a New Yorker who loves this  mayor, as an American concerned with balancing personal liberty with public policy that actually serves the public, and as a person who struggles with his own weight, these are serious questions.


What do you think?  What do you say?


Let's go! 

I think this is a really stupid decision that will not change the health habit of consumers. Besides the fact that the govt has no right nor knowledge to determine how much one can eat or drink (non alcoholic), it in no way prevents the amount of calories one can consume. Instead of purchasing one super duper large Gulp, somebody still can order two smaller super large Gulps, most likely with more calories than the original drink. What next? A ban on refills?

You raise 3 points -- all good, but not necesarilly correct or related.

1. How do you know that it will not change the health and consumption habits of of consumers?  In fact, there are studies which show that people consume more when offered a large container and less when offered a small container.  So, shrinking containers may well contribute to the change you are certain will not happen.


2. Who says, other than you, that the government has no right to to determine what we eat or drink?  Maybe they shouldn't, but clearly they do e.g. alcohol.  Why should that be the exception (as if it were the only one)?  Because of the health risks associated with it?  Let's face it, obesity is far more likely than alcohol, to wipe us out, both health-wise and financially.


3. And yes, people may order two or more drinks, as they should have the right to do, which is why this is not a "ban" on the drinks, but on a particular delivery system.  If were an all on ban on the drinks, it would be far more difficult to defend from a personal liberty and civil rights perspective.

I wonder whether it's ethical to aggressively market and sell sugary beverages with no health benefits but tons of calories, especially in the face of America's obesity crisis. My thought: it's completely irresponsible! Do soda companies get a free pass on acting ethically because they are profit-driven?

Great question!  Of course nobody should get a free pass when it comes to endangering the public.  The issue here is that there is not a shred of evidence that moderate consumption of  sugary drinks has any bad health effects.  To be clear, they are not beneficial, but unless you really believe that the government which governs best, governs like gulag, then we have to allow people the option of not maximizing their health through diet.


What's interesting about Bloomberg's proposal, even though I have some real reservations about it's wisdom, is that it recognizes that size does matter, and attempts to deal with that issue.  He knows what we all know, or should know, soda doesn't kill people, but the overconsumption of it may be truly harmful.  The key there is OVERconsumption, not ANY consumption, which is what seems to bother you.

While I understand the argument that people should be able to drink what they want, the fact that obesity rates and the health problems associated with obesity will affect others in the rising cost of health care, including private and public (medicare) lends credibility to the argument that the government does have a right to regulate, to some degree, what people consume. If I wasn't concerned that other people's behavior would eventually negatively impact me (which it will, from a cost perspective) I wouldn't care if they ate until they were 300 pounds or smoked two packs a day. But the fact of the matter is, other people's poor lifestyle choices will affect me, and that really ticks me off. Kudos to Bloomberg for trying to make this happen.

You are totally correct.  In fact, were the larger public health, and therefore public purse, issues not in play, there would no grounds whatsoever for considering this.


As it stand though, there is really very little evidence that this approach will work, at least in any direct way.  I still that the changing of cultural expectations which comes with changing packaging sizes, which has been shown to have an impact, makes this worth considering.  Let's be clear though, this is NOT going to cure us of obesity.


Also, give yourself a little credit -- I would hope that if you saw an obese person, and knowing what we do about the health risks that come with that obesity, you would care about that person at least a little.  Not that you would seek to legislate them down to a healthy weight, but at least care!  :)

Needs to grow up and realize he isnt the smartest person in NYC. If I want to drink a super size Dr. Pepper that's my business. And I don't care about the argument it will cost everyone more when I go to the hospital. It's freedom of choice! Bloomberg also needs to stop telling the rest of country what guns they can own and how many!

So it's your choice to not care about how much burden your choices lay off on the rest of us?  So much for your respect for personal choice and responsibility!  Oh wait, you believe in choice w/o responsibility.  And you want a gun?  I don't think so!!


Bloomberg's proposal may be wrong, but your argument actually supports it.  If people are so unable and unwilling to take any serious level of personal responsibility for their actions, as indicated by your comment, then the state sometimes does need to step in.  That's not the way things should ideally be, but with arguments like yours in play, that is what we get.

I think the issue comes down to self-control. Americans have gotten used to expecting others to do their dirty business (and I'm pretty liberal). Regulation should be used to protect those who have no insight or ability to understand the details (look at the financial crisis and how OFHEO / FHFA has been asleep at the switch for decades). Off my soap box - oftentimes, my wife and I share a drink because it is markedly cheaper than getting two. I don't see a point in regulating my sharing drinks with my wife.

As a big believer in personal responsibility, I appreciate the "soap box" on which you stand.  I also appreciate that you know and ackowledge when you are on it because in doing so so make it ethical and safe to stand up there, but that's another topic.


Here's the thing though: self-control does not simply emerge from the inside out or in a vacuum.  Our sense of appropriate limits is also shaped by the context and culture in which we live.  If we have a culture whcih rewards buying bigger, we are more likely to see that as the "normal" and even responsible choice, even if we are overweight.  So, it turns out that while you and your wife have mastered the economic efficiency of sharing, alot of other folks simply see that bathtub of soda as a single serving -- which is how it is marketed.

I am fascinated by this approach and my reaction to it. I have a degree in public health and work hard to keep my weight under control, so on the one hand I get it. And really, it's not a ban. It's a ban on getting a giant serving all at once--you can still consume more than 16oz through multiple servings or refills (and find me a parent who hasn't told a kid to take only one cookie and then go back for another if they're hungry). But on the other hand, why soda? Unlimited diet soda is hardly healthy for you, and other portions are so, so supersized, that this is a drop in the bucket, no pun intended.

You are sooo right!  A, it is NOT a ban on the soda, but on a particualr deleivery system.  B, it does seem like a rather haphazard approach.  Why can I get a huge milkshake but not a huge Coke?  Because the former has milk?  Who are we kidding?  C, while it may be necessary to fill the bucket one drop at a time, this is an odd first drop.

I've got the opposite problem. When my autoimmune disease flares every couple years, effectively the only thing I can eat for 2 months is milkshakes and frappuccinos. And with few McDonalds in Midtown, that means Starbucks. The last time this happened, I lost 15 lbs from my 104 lb frame while drinking Venti's. There are only so many times a day I can duck out for a Starbucks run, and frappuccinos don't keep well in the fridge or freezer, so I can't just buy two. (Two would be a lot more expensive anyway, and my budget is tight.) I fear this ban merely means that next time I'll lose 18 lbs instead of 15. My doctor will not be pleased.

Two points:


Public policy, even good public policy, will almost always cause some collateral damage to outliers.  It's not that I am uncaring, but surely you undertand that yours is a fairly unique situation, and should not be the basis for a decison which will effect millions of people.


That said, I am comfortable having told you that because the frappuccinos you need to stay healthy, a surely hope that you do so, would still be available in Venti (the huge size) because they are milk-based.

More petty than unethical. I'm no fan of these drinks, but unless Mayor Bloomberg follows this up by banning the 20 oz ribeye steaks at Peter Luger's, there is a class issue.

There may be a class issue here, but that may actually be appropriate as there is a high degree of corelation between socio-economic status and obesity.  The lower the former, the higher the latter -- at least in the US where we have so much food, that poor people are more likely to be sick from too much of a bad thing than from too little food altogether.


So unless one advocates a state-mandated diet for all Americans, then the inequality about which you are concerned is going to be there no matter what.  Given that one can eat healthy food, often more cheaply than "junk food" though, the issue is more cultural than econmic, so put your fears about inequity to rest, and start worrying about how to get poor folks to eat healthy. 

Ethical means pertaining to ethics (principles of conduct governing an individual or group) or conforming to accepted professional standards of conduct. This decision had nothing to do with ethics. Politics, yes. Sense of moral superiority, probably. But it is not a question of ethics.

Assuming that you don't want to simply be smarmy, and are also done playing human dictionary, ethics has everything to do with it, especially if you look at teh definiton you supplied!  What are the principles by which we organize our conduct-- as citizens, as individuals, as leaders?  How do we balance our hsitoric committment to individual liberty and freedom of choice with the obligations we have to each other as members of one city, state or nation?


If you are more comfortable calling that politics, fine.  but to imagine that we should make public policy without some thought given to the larger issues which make that policy either legitmate or otherwise, is pretty silly, if not outright dangerous.

So it's okay to allow gender-selective abortions, but not okay to allow the sale of 20-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola? How ridiculous is this? The government, whether at the federal, state, or local level, should not be allowed to restrict choices in the marketplace. If people want to drink a liter of soda, then they'll simply buy more 12-ounce cans or 16-ounce bottles. I believe that this will be very ineffective.

You are certainly right to point out the severe irony of those who defend a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, while questioning their right to have a large soda!  But to be fair, if the public impact of the latter (when muliplied by the millions) when translated back into public cost is much more profound than the former, it is not crazy to preserve one choice while limiting the other. 

I am a believer in government regulations and I have no problem with taking sodas and other sugary drinks out of public schools and other environments when parents are not around. Children will naturally not make the best food choices about health and nutrition and it makes perfect sense for the state to ask en loco parentis (in the place of a parent) to remove those unhealthy snacks and beverages. However, in the case of restaurants, delis and movie theaters we are talking about adults who have the capacity to understand the choices they are making are harmful to themselves and choose to do it regardless. Unlike smoking, where one person's actions have a harmful effect on those around them, consumption has no effect on other than the person doing the consuming. This just seems like an overstep where the government is trying to control the actions of people who should know better.

We all believe in government regulations, just some like yourself, are more honest about it.  There is debate about how much, under what circumstances, etc. but even anarchists with whom I have spoken admit that if things got REALLY scary, they too would yearn for an outside authority that could make life safe.


You are also correct about the appropriateness of greater regulation for minor, especially when their parents or guardians are not around.


And yes, this move does feel a bit like an overstep, unless it is explained on teh basis of trying to shape public expectation of what counts as a serving.  But if that is the case, then why start with soda?  Why 16 oz as the cut off?  And a million other issues which need to be addressed. 

Hi Rabbi Hirschfield. This ban on large drinks bothers me not one bit. It reminds me a lot of the ban on 40s or other large, single-serving beers. The fallout for neighborhoods where 40s are served is obvious to those who live here. Go ahead and buy as many sodas or beers as you want, but the packaging is an easy way to drive behavior in a positive way. What I do find unethical is the drink companies vitriolic and lie-filled campaigns to try to combat these kinds of regulations. And those people who point at public-interest legislation like this and blame Michelle Obama.

So, as you will have already noted, I am sympathetic to the distinction you are making -- that it is about regulating a specific delivery system and NOt actually curtailing anybody's right to drink what they want, or even as much as they want.  But why this item?  Why not equally unhealthy drinks that happen to have milk as their base?  Why not fruit juice which is just as high in sugar?  Until we have reasonable answers to those questions, this feels like a good idea that has not been thought out enough to turn into policy, at least not yet.

This is yet another example that a whole bunch of people in this country are just, well, stupid and weak. Of course, 32 ounce soft drinks that come chock full of corn syrup make you gain weight. Like of course, smoking is bad for you and quitting is hard. But the fact is, we as a culture want it because we want it, and if it's not a quick and easy fix, we'll just roll the dice that nothing bad will happen. I quit drinking soda years ago (diet soda included), plus got rid of the trans fats and virtually all processed foods and it resulted in an effortless 20 pound weight loss. Another friend did it and took off 35 pounds. It wasn't quick, but it was easy. Just something to think about.

And another part of our American cultural myth is that of the self-made person who pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps and gets rewarded for having done so.  Would that it were that simple, especially when it comes to health in general and weight control in particular.


Let me be clear, as this will be the last response for the day:  You are 100% right that we all have a real role to play in taking care of ourselves -- not the government, not the soda makers, not anyone but us.  Unfortunately, the one-to-one corespondance to which you refer, just isn't the truth.


Personal and public health are both a partnership.  That is the part abut which Mayor Bloomberg is 100% correct.  People exist in communities and communities must have laws which shape and reward our public health.  This proposal, especially as layed out, may not be the best idea, but it does speak to the fact that we need to begin changing our collective relationship to what and how we eat, if not for the sake of our individual health, then for the sake of our collectivly shouldered health care costs.

That's it for this week.  As always, thanks for all of the great questions and comments.


Don't forget to find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week, peace!

In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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