Doctors, scientists, community group presidents, beverage and restaurant lobbyists and politicians gave testimonies for and against the mayor’s proposed “big soda ban” at Tuesday’s New York City Board of Health hearing in Long Island City.
If approved Bloomberg’s plan would prohibit food establishments graded by the city, such as restaurants, delis and concessions at movie theaters and stadiums, from selling larger than 16-ounce containers of a sugary beverage.
The mayor-appointed health board took in the testimonies and will make a decision on the proposal in the fall.
Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) started off the hearing with a five- minute testimony against the proposal.
“When they came for the cigarettes, I didn’t say anything, because I don’t smoke. When they came for the MSG, I wasn’t concerned, because I don’t use it. When they went after salt, it was okay, because I am not a big salt eater. But will the government be telling me when to go to bed next? Or how big my steak should be? How many potato chips I can eat? After all, it’s all in the name of my health,” Halloran said. “And clearly the government knows what’s best for me. “
He made three points: first off, he said, the economic impact would be huge. Places like the College Point Pepsi facility and New York City-based Vitamin Water would lose business, and other companies would think twice before coming to the Big Apple, he said.
Secondly, he called the ban arbitrary, pointing out that the large drink sizes couldn’t be sold at a letter-graded pizzeria, but customers could walk next door to an ungraded grocery store and buy a 20-ounce jug of soda.
Many other people have pointed out that discrepancy, including Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-Corona) who led the press on a tour of delis and stores in her district on July 19.
“This has the potential to create a hostile business relationship,” said Ferreras, while pointing at a graded restaurant that shares a wall with an ungraded convenience store, which could continue to sell the product. “It just moves where it can be sold. What does this prevent?”
Business owners during the tour echoed her sentiment, saying it would not only hurt their profits, but would affect families’ pocketbooks too.
Abel Ahuatl, owner of Metro Star coffee shop and taqueria in Elmhurst, said people can close a bottle of soda like a 20-ounce jug of Pepsi, but they can’t close a can.
He said families and groups of students often share a large soda and take what’s left over with them when they leave the store. If the proposal went through, groups would have to buy a few cans to equal the same amount of liquid.
Halloran’s third point called the proposal hypocritical.
“If we were serious about health, council districts like mine would not struggle each year to get capital dollars to repair our soccer, baseball and track fields,” he said.
Other politicians agreed, including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. He wanted to see more group exercise programs and suggested introducing “exercise stamps,” a program much like food stamps that would subsidize gym memberships for low-income New Yorkers.
Markowitz said he is overweight because “my genes are working against me” and because he eats pasta, cheesecake, red velvet cake and the like as well as not exercising as much as he should — not because of soda.
Councilwoman Letitia James (R-Brooklyn) said she struggled for weeks over either supporting or opposing the ban, adding that poorer districts such as hers suffer from high rates of obesity. However in the end, although she said she has attended many funerals of people in her district who have died from weight-related illnesses, she chose to stand against the proposal.
“This is a complex issue and a simple ban won’t accomplish anything,” James said.
Instead she advocated for salad bars in schools, renovated playgrounds, sports teams and more education.
However, others at the hearing stood behind the proposal, citing portion size and the lack of nutritional value in soda.
“A Cheetos or a Twinkie has at least some nutritional value,” said Kelly Brownell, the director of Yales’ Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, adding that sugary beverages do not give consumers any useful calories.
Scientific evidence supports such a policy, Brownell said, adding that portion sizes keep growing bigger and bigger. Consumers at restaurants will eat these larger portions without realizing it’s a lot more than what they would consume at home, he said, and they won’t make up for the increased intake by eating less at other meals.
Taking away the giant portion of soda is a proactive solution in his opinion.
David Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York, a nonprofit organization that promotes economic advancement for low-income New Yorkers, said the city has a history of selling poor communities useless products.
Not only did he say the large bottles of “sugar water” disportionately target poor black and Hispanic communities, but also cost New Yorkers $4 billion a year in health issues.