The soda industry spent more than $1M fighting a proposed ban by the Bloomberg administration on the sale of “supersized” sodas in NYC. The ban was approved today by the NYC City Council marking a major policy victory for Bloomberg. The soda lobby and many New Yorkers’ claim that this policy represents an infringement of the consumer’s right to choice in the marketplace and yet another step towards big government and Bloomberg’s idealized “nanny” state. Let’s break this simply ridiculous statement down:
There is no restriction on the quantity of non-supersized “sugary beverages” the customer can purchase. The policy’s intent is to reign in obesity and obesity-related diseases, like diabetes, that have a clear link to soda consumption. The administration hopes that reducing individual serving sizes will have a psychological impact that reduces the total quantity of soda consumed. There is ample evidence to support this assumption. Essentially, people will eat (or drink) what’s put in front of them, especially when it comes to sugar, which our body evolved to crave because it is necessary for our survival in small quantities, but until the advent of our global food system was difficult to obtain in nature. If the act of purchasing multiple smaller beverages (less than 16 oz according to the new law), rather than a single “supersize” soda, makes the customer feel gluttonous, isn’t that a good thing? There’s nothing preventing the consumer from ignoring their better instincts and purchasing or consuming multiple smaller beverages, so the civil liberties argument doesn’t hold sugary water, so to speak.
Conversely, the clear connection between soda and diabetes makes this a public health issue, which government routinely regulates. Even the J.S. Mill libertarian types should recognize the presence of a “harm” principle here. If people who drink soda in large quantities are significantly more likely to develop diabetes and other related health issues, and those consumers represent a significant and disproportionate drain on the collective health resources of the populace (2.3 times higher than individuals without diabetes and over $174B annually in the US), which are supported through our tax dollars, then government has a legitimate right intervening to protect the individual’s economic freedom. Start waving the freedom flag if the Bloomberg administration tries to pass a policy requiring pedestrians to wear protective helmets while walking down the street, otherwise I say bring on the “nanny” state. It’s our tax dollars, after all.
Speaking of tax dollars, why is soda so cheap and would we have such a health epidemic if its price was on parity with “healthier” beverages? We might not ever learn the answer to the second question, but the answer to the first is indisputable: corn subsidies. Water and high fructose corn syrup. That’s basically what you’re drinking when you drink soda. Why? Because of the perverse subsidies (at least $5B annually, according Michael Pollen) included in the Farm Bill that massively subsidize the cost of growing corn so that industrial food processors can create cheap sugar (and cattle feed and all kinds of other products). Without these subsidies, the real cost of soda would by at least twice as much and probably quite a bit more. In fact, to circle back to the “supersize” soda ban, from the time Coca-Cola first introduced corn syrup to their product in 1980 instead of natural sugar, the price to produce soft drinks plummeted. But rather than cut the price to the consumer, Coke and Pepsi seized the opportunity to increase prices while simultaneously increasing per serving quantity, capturing additional profits in the process. Thus began the era of “supersizing” and the transformation from the 8-oz serving size to the simply massive quantities we typically find today. (Again, see Pollen Omnivore’s Dilemma for more).
So, to all those in opposition of the soda ban, before we can have anything resembling a reasonable conversation about “freedom,” personal liberty, and the consumer’s right to choose, we first need to dismantle the agricultural policies that distort the real price of soda in the marketplace.