By Marsha Mercer
Secretary of State John Kerry was right when he said, “In America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be,” especially when it comes to drinking soda.
Kerry was talking to German students about political liberty, but we also take seriously our freedom to make bad food decisions.
Three-fourths of Americans disapprove of New York City’s ban on gigantic sodas, which a judge invalidated March 11, and about six in 10 say no to “sin” taxes on unhealthy foods and sodas, the Associated Press reported in January.
Downing the equivalent of 16 packets of sugar – the amount in a 20-ounce can of regular soda – is a personal choice, people say. OK, but where does personal freedom stop and public responsibility start?
Smoking was once considered a personal choice, but when the preponderance of evidence proved its health hazards, the government took action. Americans balked at first but then accepted warning labels on cigarette packages and higher taxes on cigarettes. Today, most people appreciate bans on smoking in offices, bars, restaurants, shops, movie theatres and sporting events. We’re glad not to breathe second-hand smoke or wear it in our hair and clothes.
Similarly, we’ve come to appreciate seat belts and, in all but a few states, motorcycle helmet laws that limit our freedom for the greater good of survival.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda rule has flaws, but its intent – “to address the super-size trend and reacquaint New Yorkers with smaller portion sizes, leading to a reduction in consumption of sugary drinks” – is sensible. There’s a consensus that Americans are getting fatter and sicker, and that soft drinks are partly – but not totally – to blame.
“There is very real evidence now that soft drinks are related to weight gain and obesity and, most certainly, diabetes,” nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard School of Public Health told NBC News.
Diabetes is epidemic, Willett and others say. Among Americans 20 and older, 11.3 percent have diabetes, and among those 65 and older, nearly one in three have the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association, which says the cost of diabetes last year reached $245 billion, up 41 percent in just five years.
A 2004 Harvard study found that women who drank one or more sugary drinks per day had an 83 percent greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than women who rarely drank them.
Limiting consumption of sugary drinks in hopes of improving health is New York’s approach. But state Supreme Court justice Milton Tingling said it was arbitrary, capricious and full of loopholes. The rule applied to cafes and restaurants but not to convenience stores. It regulated sodas but not milkshakes or alcoholic beverages, which have more calories. It allowed unlimited soda refills, effectively gutting the restriction.
Portion control would create “an administrative Leviathan,” Tingling wrote a day before the rule was to go into effect.
Bloomberg, dubbed “Nanny B” by critics, is appealing the ruling. He says he’s confident the rule will stand and will become a model for other localities. New York was among the first to eliminate trans-fats in prepared foods and require calorie counts on menus.
The American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than six teaspoons and men nine teaspoons of added sugar a day. Americans eat about 22 ½ teaspoons a day in everything from soda and candy to cakes and sweetened yogurt.
Consumption of sugary drinks already has declined, says the American Beverage Association, which notes the average number of calories in a beverage serving has dropped 23 percent since 1998 because more people are drinking diet and low-cal drinks and bottled water.
If Bloomberg is right that sugar is the next tobacco, could a sugar tax be waiting in the wings? President Barack Obama has said a tax is worth exploring. Congress rejected a sugar tax as part of health reform because it’s so unpopular.
For now, we have the right to be stupid – without paying one penny more.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.