NYC Beverage Ban Debated in Marathon Public Hearing

More Than Half of Attendees Supported Mayor Bloomberg's Proposal

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A packed house turned out for a public hearing held today to discuss New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on the sale of large sugary drinks.

The stage was immediately set for a "lengthy" hearing, with the moderator noting that some board members would be unable to stay for the entire hearing, slated to last two hours and showing every sign of going well beyond that . Early on, a number of elected officials made passionate cases for why they opposed the ban. But as the hearing progressed, a number of university professors and public-health officials came out in support of the ban. More than 30 had spoken by the three-hour mark, with over half in support of the ban.

Ad denouncing the ban.
Ad denouncing the ban.

Board of Health members, all of whom are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, did not ask questions of the speakers. The board is expected to make a decision on the proposed ban -- which has been debated heavily in the media and in advocacy ads -- in September. It could be implemented as early as March 2013.

The sweeping ban would prohibit the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks, such as energy drinks and some iced teas, at restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and street carts. The ban would not affect beverages sold in grocery or convenience stores (so those Big Gulps at 7-Eleven are safe). And it would not apply to drinks with fewer than 25 calories per 8-ounce serving, such as diet sodas and unsweetened iced teas. "Large" is designated as any container holding more than 16 ounces.

Cups or bottles bigger than 16 fluid ounces (the average soda bottle is 20 ounces) would be affected. Restaurants would be required to serve fountain cups that are 16 ounces or less, limiting many to sizes currently classified as small or child. A medium fountain cup at McDonald's is 21 ounces, while a large is 32 ounces, according to its website.

Elected officials including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, City Councilmember Dan Halloran and City Councilmember Letitia James oppose the ban and called on the Board of Health to focus its energies elsewhere. The officials asked that the Board of Health instead focus on ensuring playgrounds and school gyms are up to date, and that gym is part of the curriculum in all New York City schools. Mr. Markowitz laid out a plan that would include community exercise groups as well subsidies for low and moderate income New Yorkers who would like to join gyms and other health clubs.

Various elected officials also told stories about the local business owners that would be negatively affected in their districts should the ban be enacted. Local bodegas would lose out on sales, they reasoned, as consumers begin frequenting drug stores or convenience stores still allowed to sell large, sugary drinks.

At fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, carbonated soft drinks account for about 10% of sales in the U.S., according to restaurant market-research firm Technomic. That's a sizable portion of top-line sales, but factor in the profitability of soft drinks for the chains -- a 90%-plus profit margin -- and the potential wallop to the bottom line becomes clear, particularly for franchisees.

Officials at the hearing also urged the Board of Health to allow the proposed ban to be handled legislatively and to give New Yorkers a more-convenient forum to speak out. The public hearing was held in Long Island City, beginning at 1 p.m. -- not exactly accessible for the average working New Yorker, Ms. James pointed out.

The beverage and restaurant industries also pushed back against the ban, pointing out there are calorie counts on the front of bottles and cans in New York, while restaurants in the city also post the calorie content of beverages. Robert Sunshine, representing the New York theater industry, also spoke out against the ban, saying the loss in sales could lead to a rise in ticket prices or hiring freezes.

A number of educators and health professionals, including registered dieticians and doctors, spoke out in support of the ban, citing rising obesity rates.

"We believe in the public's right to choose the food and drink they consume. However, we should make healthy choices easier," said Lois Utley, president of the Public Health Association of New York City. "By making the routine choice healthier, we are making it easier for our children. [They'll] come to a new idea for a new normal-size drink."

Kelly Brownwell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, posited that larger portions lead to over-consumption, and shrinking portion sizes would help people to eat in moderation. He also said that the body does not understand calories in liquids in the same way as it does for solid food, meaning people don't feel full from consuming a large soda and continue to intake calories they don't need.

The New Yorkers for Beverage Choices group, self-defined as a coalition of individuals, businesses and community organizations, was blasted by several speakers as an "astroturfing" effort by the beverage industry meant to portray a "grassroots" movement, when it's anything but. A quick review of the list of members reveals a number of bodegas, movie theaters and pizza joints but also Coca-Cola agency partners such as Starcom, Mediavest, Creative Artists Agency and Ammirati.

If the ban is instituted, it would be Mayor Bloomberg's most aggressive move yet to curb obesity rates and improve New Yorkers' health. Many of the measures adopted in New York have become models for other cities, such as restrictions on smoking and trans fats and the requirement that restaurants post calorie counts next to prices. The city has also been extremely aggressive in running graphic advertisements that criticize smoking and the consumption of sugary beverages. Mayor Bloomberg also supported a state tax on sodas and other sugary drinks, though that effort failed.

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