New York City's Mayor Bloomberg has announced the imposition of a 16-ounce limit on sugary drinks. Set to take effect in March 2013, the ban will not extend to diet sodas, but it will reach an estimated 20,000 restaurants, as well as movie theaters, stadiums, mobile food carts and delis. Sayonara gut-busting jumbo size cokes that so deliciously fill stomachs nationwide with enough calories to power a small car.
During the summer of 2010, a friend from Italy came to spend a few weeks with me touring the better part of the eastern seaboard. We hit Philadelphia's Liberty Bell, toured the Washington Monuments, rode the waves at the Jersey Shore and strolled along the craggy Maine coast. For a man that had previously never been to the United States, there were limitless sights and experiences on which to comment. However, none elicited more shock and awe than the American dining experience.
The food was bland, the portions enormous, and the tips erroneous. When he ordered a "small" Coke at the movie theater and received a cup requiring both hands to hold, his jaw hit the floor, "This is a small?! No wonder Americans are so fat!" Leave it to the Italians to be candid.
Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and others on the right disavow Michelle Obama's healthy eating initiative and state efforts to promote healthy eating in public spaces, like school cafeterias. Apparently, this "Nanny State" is threatening our civil liberties with an apple at lunch!
Despite the right wing rhetoric and scare tactics, it is true that Bloomberg's ban is the first legislative move to decisively limit individual consumption. Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative is, in practice, no more than a public campaign to "support healthy choices" through education, access to healthy foods, and increased physical activity in schools, for instance. No one has to participate in Let's Move. Everyone, however, will soon have to adhere to New York City's soda ban. One can't help but wonder, what's next? McDonald's Big Macs? Jumbo-sized pizzas?
But, the fact still remains that while the Becks of the world might be fat and perfectly happy, obesity is the leading public health problem and requires community action. By 2030, 42 per cent of Americans will be obese. Incidence of diabetes will skyrocket. Obesity-related healthcare costs will soar. Basically, the taxpayers and the health system will have to accommodate America's ever expanding waistline.
If self-control and individual willpower were a sufficient remedy, that'd be great. But it's very clearly not. We live in a society in which we are mercilessly tempted with endless food options that most humans simply are not wired to resist.
According to Martijn Katan of the Institute of Health Sciences at VU University in Amsterdam, "[it is a] basic instinct, even stronger than the sexual instinct, to store calories to survive the next period of starvation. And we live in an environment where there's food every half mile. It's tasty, cheap, convenient, and you can eat it with one hand."
Like smoking, over-eating and eventual obesity have reverberating effects throughout society. Public health issues are public problems, both necessitating and legitimating community (i.e. government and public) action.
Mayor Bloomberg's decision to reduce soda portions from enormous to normal might be the first, but -- like the not-so-novel smoking ban -- won't be the last.