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Column/Op-Ed, News, Politics, Social

Hands Off My Big Gulp: Preventing the Nanny Nation

It was a peculiar sight in Lower Manhattan.

Armed with signs calling New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg a “nanny” and protesters, some even children, carrying 7-Eleven Big Gulps full of soda, the “Million Big Gulp March” took to the streets of Lower Manhattan the evening of July 9th. The protest was against Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed citywide ban on absurdly large sugary drinks over 16 ounces. This ban would affect sodas, sport drinks, coffees, and sweetened teas at restaurants, food carts, delis, movie theater concessions, stadiums, and arena in the five boroughs The new ban does have exceptions that allow convienience stores – including 7-Eleven’s trademark Big Gulp – to be spared, due to their regulation by the state of New York, not the city. Other drinks, like the Starbucks Frappucino, remain in a legal and ambiguous limbo in the Mayor’s fight against unhealthy foods.

On June 11th, the New York Board of Health – an eleven member panel handpicked by Bloomberg himself – announced during a hearing that agreed unanimously with the Mayor to publish the plan for a public hearing set for July 24th. The final vote is set for September 13th and – if passed – would go into effect March 2013. Already, food and beverage executives are working on contingency plans, including possible lawsuits against the city to stop the ban should it pass.

At the hearing, board members did raise concerns over the unfairness of some venues being excluded by the plan because the city has no control over them, while others voiced what would be a slippery slope: If New York bans oversized drinks, will oversized burgers, popcorn, and fries be next? Would bigger portions shrink?

Make no mistakes, there is a health crisis in the country. The board recognized that large sugary drinks are the leading cause of the obesidy epidemic in the country. With a third of Americans overweight, and another third obese, an estimated 68.8% of Americans have weight problems. And with obesity playing a contributing factor in half of the top ten causes of death by natural causes, it is a true cause of concern for health departments across the United States. So, should any government, on a federal, state, or city level enact strict bans on consumption?

Absolutely not.

The problem here is that the government is taking on a responsibility that it should not be burdened with. The government should not be a parent, telling you what you can and cannot eat, drink, watch, hear, use, etc. This type of thinking removes the basic core of social life: responsibility. Now, if a government wants to have health programs, help create affordable fitness programs at recreation centers, have an aggressive and often startling online, television, and print ad campaign, and invest in our parks and bike lanesto promote active lifestyles, that is fine. Mayor Bloomberg has done all of those. But there is a fine line between encouraging a citizen to better their lives, and forcing them to. Once the ban was announced, many online criticized the idea by claiming that one could simply purchase more sugary drinks to go around the law. The law also punishes restaurants and other venues for offering what people already desire.

While this a broad argument against governments as parent states, this isn’t a blanket argument. Republicans, for example, love to argue against the Affordable Care Act – also known best as “Obamacare” – as the government operating as a parent. Justice Antonin Scalia made his now-infamous remarks that the passage of health care could lead the government to tax Americans who do not eat broccoli.

Nice argument, conservatives.

Except that affordable health care offers Americans a choice. They are not being forced to have ONE single health insurance plan. It simply protects Americans who can afford health insurance from drowning in debt if an accident or a health condition puts them in the emergency room. The city’s soda ban is intrusive in people’s lives. But an affordable health care law allows Americans to find a low-cost health care plan that not only hurts the afflicted American, but their families. It has nothing to do with banning Americans from doing certain things.  Why else would Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney praise the Affordable Care Act in 2010?

This argument, also, should not be misconstrude as an argument to legalize hard drugs. Libertarians, for example, advocate for drug liberalization because Americans should have their free will to do whatever they want to their own bodies.  If that includes doing cocaine or heroin, why should the government intervene, right? Well, hard drugs simply do not just affect just the individual. They affect families who have to struggle with someone’s addiction, because there’s no such thing as moderation when it comes to drug addicts. There are very few “functioning drug addicts”, and that is not a theory I wish to test with legalization. They lead to crime on the streets and abroad in the drug trade. It will clog our hospitals and put a strain on our economy and our ability to maintain a sense of order. Hard drugs cause damage to out society as a whole, so that is not what this argument is about.

This arguement is about maintaining the free will to do what one wants to themselves if it does not harm others. Excessive soda consumption does not hurt anyone but the individual themselves.  It is similar to excessive smoking and excessive overeating. Responsible parents – not the government itself – should be teaching moderation. Sure, fast food is inexpensive and heavily advertised. But it would be preposterous to eat fast food everyday and not expect to be healthy by the end of the month, as Morgan Spurlock demonstrated in his hit documentary, Supersize Me.

So when Starbucks introduced their 31oz. cup for iced drinks, the Trenta, the internet lit up. The Trenta cup is bigger than the human stomach and has enough caffeine to jolt the heart. To have that much coffee is obscene and excessive. But the government should not be stepping in to tell Americans that drinking more coffee than there is room in the human stomach. Common sense should dictate that if a customer wants to purchase a Trenta, that they understands the risks attached to it and drink responsibly. They shouldn’t drink it everyday, and down it in one shot.

Mayor Bloomberg, who has positioned himself as a champion of public health, is also well-known for pioneering the ban on smoking in commercial establishments such as bars and nightclubs in March 2003 and banning harmful trans-fats in 2008. Both of these laws were sound because smoking in an enclosed space endangers and harms nonsmokers with unwanted second-hand smoke who come out to enjoy establishments. Trans-fats is an unnecessary and very harmful ingredient in food that has no nutritional value that scientists say should not exceed trace amounts. He has also pushed for the reduction of salt in packets and in food by 25% by 2015. This is also acceptable because salt – like sugary drinks – also have little nutritional value, but there is no ban or limitation on how much salt an establishment can offer.  The amount of salt reduction would not alter the flavor of the food dramatically, so reducing salt in food is also not crossing the line. If someone wants to cover their food in salt, nothing should stop them. But when you ban establishments from having larger cups to offer soda, you are not banning an ingredient like salt or trans-fats. You aren’t banning a product that is harmful to those around an individual like cigarette smoke. You are intruding on the right of a business to sell a large cup full of a single product – a sugary drink to willing customers.

If the government wants to preserve freedom, they would allow Americans to do even nonsense things like guzzling absurdly large sugary drinks.  That is their choice and their right. The best thing for any municiplaity to do is to target the communities where fast food and fattening products target, and counter. I strongly applaude the Mayor and his committment to public health advocacy, and this is no way a personal attack on him. But he must continue his other courses of action, and other concerned municipalities should follow. Maintain aggressive campaigns that make sugary drinks fun appealing.  Make fitness far more accessable by investing in parks, recreation centers, and bike lanes. But banning a product is not just overstepping a boundary, it’s opening a slippery slope towards further prohibitions. The government’s role is to ensure the rights of every American, not to play a nanny. Parents and schools can teach proper ways to maintain good health to children. But once the child is grown, it’s up to them whether they heed advice about proper dieting and moderation of unhealthy foods. Not the government.

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About Richard L. Vargas

Among many things, I'm a writer, blogger, news junkie, and pop culture enthusiast from New York City.

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