The infamous soda battle of New York City

A recent ABC News story details the by-now-well-known proposal by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. From the article:

In his latest effort to fight obesity in this era of Big Gulps and triple bacon cheeseburgers, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing an unprecedented ban on large servings of soda and other sugary drinks at restaurants, delis, sports arenas and movie theaters.

Drinks would be limited to 16 ounces, which is considered a small serving at many fast-food joints.

Now, let’s think about this for a minute: A 16-ounce (473 mL) limit would even ban 20-ounce (591 mL) bottles. A typical medium-size drink in most national chains is 20 ounces, sometimes up to 24 ounces (710 mL). (I say “national” because at Taco Cabana and Whataburger, 20 ounces is the small, 32 ounces (946 mL) is the medium, and 44 ounces (1.3 L) is the large. But what do you expect from Texas companies? We’d never let some Yankee tell us 16 ounces is as big as you can go.)

Once upon a time, sodas were commonly available in 16-ounce (glass) bottles. I’m not sure of the exact year of the change, but the common size for bottles now is the 20-ounce size (with some locations offering 1-liter bottles in some flavors). I know at least Coca-Cola offers aluminum bottles in 8.5 ounce (251 mL) which roughly correspond to a former glass bottle size (which I’m not sure if it’s still being made), but this is a specialty item that’s not sold very widely. The ones I bought were mainly purchased for the package design (that, and I was at a hotel and I didn’t feel like going all the way back down to the gift shop on the first floor).

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for a major soda company’s PR department to fire one right back:

“The people of New York City are much smarter than the New York City Health Department believes,” Coca-Cola Co. said in a statement. “New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase.”

Kudos to Coca-Cola for striking back against this insanity. To be fair, they’ll feel anything that would kill sales in a city the size of New York, so it’s in their interest to say this is dumb. But I’m sure their customers feel the same way.

The article goes on to cite this nugget of dubious wisdom:

Bloomberg said people who want to guzzle soda would still be free to order more than one drink. But he said restricting servings to 16 ounces each could help curb consumption.

Now, I doubt this is actually true, and I’ll explain why. For one, most fast food restaurants allow free refills. Even some movie theatres allow free refills, which to be honest, at the prices charged is the least they can do. It’s not clear from everything I’ve read whether or not Bloomberg plans to ban those as well. If so, this is even worse than I could have imagined, and I would even say it could be considered restraint of trade if looked at in the right way.

Second, what I predict will happen is that people will start becoming less restrained about bringing in their own drinks. The sale on two 12-ounce cans or two 16-ounce fountain drinks will be lost to the convenience store with no limit. And the restaurant owners, rather than risk irking their customers and losing the sale entirely, will grow accustomed to seeing someone bring in a soda from the convenience store around the corner and just not say anything.

It’s obvious why Mayor Bloomberg is floating such an outrageous policy: in New York, the term limit for mayor is three terms, and this is his third term. So, not surprisingly, voters have little recourse should they feel he stepped over the line. However, it would not surprise me in the least if Bloomberg’s successor decides to repeal this law should it pass very early in the term.

So my response to this short-sighted proposal is this: If Mayor Bloomberg really cares about health, how about an aggressive tax against tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco, etc)? Make it so expensive to smoke in New York that people will have to quit due to financial reasons. That will do far more for health than any silly “you can only have a small soda” law. And if for some reason cities can’t tax cigarettes in New York State, then the law up there is even more broken than I thought.

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