NEW YORK — New York City’s mayor is proposing a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in the hopes of combating obesity — an expansion of efforts to encourage healthy behavior that have led to shouts that America’s largest city is becoming a “nanny state.”
The proposal marks the first time an American city has so directly attempted to limit sugary-drink portion sizes. City officials Thursday said they believe it will ultimately prove popular with New Yorkers and push governments around the U.S. to adopt similar rules.
“The percentage of the population that is obese is skyrocketing,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said May 31 on MSNBC television. “We’ve got to do something.”
It is the latest health effort by Bloomberg’s administration to spark accusations that city officials are overstepping into matters that should be left in the hands of individuals.
“New Yorkers expect and deserve better than this. They can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase,” the Coca-Cola Company said in a statement. “We hope New Yorkers loudly voice their disapproval about this arbitrary mandate.”
The proposal would impose a 16-ounce (nearly half a liter) limit on sugary drinks sold at restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and street carts. It would apply to bottled drinks — many plastic soda bottles contain 20 ounces — as well as fountain sodas.
Bloomberg said people who want to guzzle 32 ounces (nearly a liter) would still be free to order two drinks. But he said restricting sodas to 16 ounces could help curb consumption.
“You tend to eat all of the food in the container. If it’s bigger, you eat more. If somebody put a smaller glass or plate or bowl in front of you, you would eat less,” he said.
Under Bloomberg, a three-term mayor, New York has campaigned aggressively against obesity, outlawing trans fats in restaurant food and forcing chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus. The mayor has also led efforts to ban smoking in the city’s bars, restaurants, parks and beaches.
Bloomberg often cites the city’s rising life expectancy numbers as proof the health push is working, but his efforts have drawn criticism from others who accuse him of instituting a “nanny state.”
“There they go again,” said Stefan Friedman, spokesman for the New York City Beverage Association, who called the latest proposal “zealous.”
“The New York City Health Department’s unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks is again pushing them over the top,” he said. “The city is not going to address the obesity issue by attacking soda because soda is not driving the obesity rates.”
The ban, which could take effect as soon as March, would not extend to drinks sold in grocery or convenience stores that don’t primarily sell foods meant to be eaten right away. Businesses that violate the rules would face fines of $200 per failed inspection.
The ban would apply only to sweetened drinks that contain more than 25 calories per 8 ounces (a quarter of a liter; a 12-ounce can of Coke contains about 140 calories). It would not apply to diet soda, and any drink that is at least half milk or milk substitute would be exempt.
City officials said they believe some calorie-heavy beverages wouldn’t be affected. Starbucks Frappucinos, for example, would probably be exempted because of their dairy content, while the Slurpee partially frozen soft drinks at 7-Eleven wouldn’t be affected because the convenience stores are regulated as groceries.
Officials cited research linking sugary drinks to rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“We have a crisis of obesity,” City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said. “And people often go with the default choice, and if the default choice is something which is very unhealthy and is feeding into that health crisis, it’s appropriate for the government to say, ‘No, we think the default choice should be healthier.’ ”
The proposal requires the approval of the city’s Board of Health — considered likely because its members are all appointed by Bloomberg.
The Bloomberg administration has tried other ways to make soda consumption less appealing. The mayor supported a state tax on sodas, but the measure died in the Legislature, and he tried to restrict the use of food stamps to buy sodas, an idea that federal regulators rejected.
Mark Kalinowski, an analyst with Janney Capital Markets who covers companies including McDonald’s, said it is unlikely the ban will be enacted.
And if it does go into effect, he said, customers will probably just respond by ordering two drinks.
“Maybe the mayor can outlaw all soft drinks and outlaw all fun while he’s at it,” Kalinowski scoffed.