Bursting the Bubble on the NYC Soda Ban

The Big Gulp and similarly supersized sodas would be forced to slim down under a proposed New York City law that aims to encourage similar results among an increasingly overweight population.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday unveiled a plan that would make it illegal for restaurants, movie theaters and sports arenas to sell sweetened drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces. The ban would not affect diet sodas, juice or alcoholic beverages and would not apply to grocery or convenience stores.

It’s the latest in a string of recent public and private policy efforts to combat rising rates of obesity in the United States — including bans on selling soda in schools, requirements that restaurants list calorie counts on their menus and increased health insurance premiums for people considered to be overweight.

Other efforts include:

A group of health professionals calling on McDonald’s to retire Ronald McDonald and other efforts to advertise junk food to children.

An April 2011 proposal by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to levy a $50 fine for obese Medicaid participants who failed to lose weight.

–  Walmart’s initiative, launched in January 2011, to offer lower prices on items such as fruits and vegetables to encourage consumers to adopt more health-conscious shopping habits.

But do such efforts actually encourage people to change their routines? It’s questionable, according to Wharton statistics professor Jean Lemaire, who notes that people still find ways around laws regulating such vices as alcohol and cigarettes. “We can tax it; we can make it more expensive; we can reduce opening hours of the stores that sell it, but people find ways to get around that.”

Countries across the globe have launched aggressive attempts to curb smoking — a habit Lemaire says has more profound negative impacts on life expectancy than obesity — but “no nation in the world has managed to reduce smoking rates below 20%, even the really healthy countries such as those in Scandinavia or Japan…. It seems like people take from science what they want to take and don’t take what they don’t want to hear.”

Lemaire suggests that increased health insurance premiums might hit home for people because it would affect their wallets more than having to buy an extra soda because they can only buy it 16 ounces at a time. But he notes that since obesity is usually correlated to other genetic and societal factors, it would be difficult to find a clear-cut way to account for it. “Penalties have to be simple for people to understand them — i.e., you will be assessed 20% for this and 30% for that,” Lemaire says. “If a condition is correlated with several factors, it’s hard to put that in models. It’s really difficult to estimate the cost of one factor.”

In a 2011 lecture for the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, Stanford University professor Jay Bhattacharya echoed Lemaire’s skepticism of policy efforts to reduce obesity rates.

“Obesity is not the only outcome of food,” Bhattacharya said during his speech, titled, “Who Pays for Obesity?” He noted that while overeating has significant health consequences, people also need to eat daily to live. In fact, according to Bhattacharya, an effective tax to discourage obesity would begin at an individual’s 2,500th calorie of the day — an idea that would be not only impractical, but impossible to carry out.

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