Isn’t part of being an adult having the ability to choose? You know, such as whether you want to nosh on shish kabob, burgers, or hot dogs at your July 4th cookout? Most people think so. But America’s historical love for individual liberty seems to occasionally clash with our Puritanical roots. The dichotomy is once again rearing its head, this time in New York City. Now nosy politicians are taking a bit too much interest in what you choose to eat and drink.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a Puritanical take: Adults shouldn’t be allowed to order a soda larger than 16 ounces. Yes, you read right. The leader of America’s largest and most dynamic city wants to make it illegal for a restaurant, ballgame vendor, or movie theater to serve you a soft drink larger than 16 ounces. He and his health department think that this edict will reduce obesity.
They also don’t think that banning consumer choices is really all that big a deal. Bloomberg even claims, “I don’t think you can make the case that we’re taking things away.”
Saying that the ban isn’t “taking things away” is obviously absurd. The government is doing just that when it bans certain cup sizes or makes you pay more for two drinks instead of one.
And government-mandated portion sizes like Mayor Bloomberg’s won’t make people slim down. Data from the federal government indicate that soft drinks account for only seven percent of Americans’ daily calorie intake. Many people already drink zero-calorie diet sodas.
So much for the claim that everybody’s guzzling buckets of sugary sodas. Additionally, people are cutting back their full-calorie soda intake. According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Americans have reduced their daily intake of all added sugars by six teaspoons since 2000. The reduction came “primarily because of a reduction in soda consumption,” according to the authors. And let’s remember that all that happened without a government-set serving size.
And once the government starts banning certain foods, where will it stop? New York is already considering expanding its proposed ban to popcorn and milk-based coffees. What’s next? Will Bloomberg ban the pastrami sandwich or ration the cream cheese for Manhattan’s famous bagels?
Clearly, this isn’t good news for our food freedom. And researchers from Cornell University argue that if the ban doesn’t work (and it won’t), it could even harm useful anti-obesity policy in the future by causing people to distrust future policies. They’d certainly have a reason.
But what about the soda tax, presented as a “moderate” alternative to Bloomberg’s ban? Isn’t that a win-win for stretched budgets and belts?
It isn’t. The promises of shrinking people with the tax code just aren’t backed up by the evidence. Research from Duke-National University of Singapore found that even a steep tax of 40 percent would reduce daily calorie intake by just 12 calories. Most people burn that off with a few minutes’ walk. And the financial impact of the tax hits poor consumers hardest, exactly the opposite of a well-designed revenue raiser.
Of course, it’s a lot easier for regulators and bureaucrats to play mommy and say, “You can’t have that,” than to treat Americans as adults. But banning particular foods or portion sizes is a path of certain failure. Research demonstrates that people instinctively resist heavy-handed dictates. It’s the American way.
Really, there’s only one government that’s successfully put its citizens on a diet: North Korea. This Fourth of July, we should remember that we can do better.
J. Justin Wilson is the Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.