TOPICS > Health

Bloomberg Could Buy the World a Coke, but He’d Make It a Small

May 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Thursday his aim to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and street carts to help fight obesity. Judy Woodruff speaks with New York Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley and Andrew Moesel of the New York State Restaurant Association.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to a new plan to improve public health in New York City. It’s attracting national attention and raising questions about whether the government is going too far. 

City Hall’s new target? That bottle of soda you may be drinking. 

New York City’s image may be larger than life, but part of it’s in for a downsizing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is formally proposing a 16-ounce limit on high-calorie drinks sold by restaurants, movie theaters, and other vendors. Grocery and convenience stores would be exempt, as would diet sodas and milk-based products.

The mayor made his case on MSNBC. 

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), Mayor of New York: It’s not perfect, it’s not the only answer, it’s not the only cause of people being overweight, but we have got to do something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bloomberg has campaigned against obesity since becoming mayor. The city already banned trans fats in restaurant food and required chain restaurants to list calorie counts on menus. 

In 2010, Bloomberg supported a state tax on soda, a measure that failed in the legislature. Today, the New York Beverage Association characterized the mayor’s latest effort as zealous. A spokesman said — quote — “The city is not going to address the obesity issue by attacking soda, because soda is not driving the obesity rates.”

But in his MSNBC interview, Bloomberg defended the idea of cutting access to big sugared drinks. 

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: If you want to have multiple ones, that’s up to you. We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do anything. All we’re trying to do is to remind you that this is something that could be, should be, is — not should be — is detrimental to your health, and to do something about this national epidemic. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: The proposal sparked mixed reactions overnight from New Yorkers. 

MAN: Well, I don’t think it’s the mayor’s job to decide what sort of soft drinks that people in Manhattan or anywhere in the world want to buy for that matter. 

MAN: Overindulging is never a good thing, you know? Everything in moderation, I think that’s a good idea to promote. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: If the city’s Board of Health approves, the ban will take effect next March. 

Like other public health measures he’s passed before, Mayor Bloomberg’s latest proposal is drawing heavy criticism, as well as praise.

We take it up with New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley. He’s also the chair of the city board of health that would approve it. And Andrew Moesel, spokesman for the city’s chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. 

We thank you both for joining us. 

Commissioner Farley, to you first. 

Tell us about the penalty. If someone, if a consumer or a restaurant were the violate this rule if it goes into effect, what happens to them? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY, New York City Health Commissioner: Well, it’s really not about penalties. 

What we want to do is have restaurants follow the rule which says that no sugary drinks sold in a container larger than 16 ounces. But we do have the option of fining them up to $200 for violating that rule. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Commissioner Farley, why does the city think that it is its responsibility, the government’s responsibility, to tell people how much soda they should drink? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: You know, we have a national crisis of obesity. Nationally, two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Obesity in New York City alone is costing us $4 billion a year in health care costs. 

Now, there are many contributing factors to that, but there is none — no single factor that is contributing to it more than the increase in consumption of these sugary drinks. There’s something about this product that seems to be uniquely associated with obesity and is also increasingly associated with diabetes and heart disease. 

The portion sizes of those have grown dramatically over the past 30 years. And there’s good studies that show that the portions of people served have a great influence on how much they consume. So we think that people should be served portions that are not enormous, not like this 64-ounce cup that we could get at a fast food restaurant in New York City now.

And if people want to drink more than that, they can, but we are going to serve them a portion size that gives them a guide as to what is the maximum appropriate size. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Moesel, doesn’t the mayor and Commissioner Farley have a point in that obesity has become a serious problem in this country? 

ANDREW MOESEL, New York State Restaurant Association: Obesity is a problem. And I agree with the mayor. I think something needs to be done. But I don’t think this is it. 

New Yorkers, as we heard during the news segment, simply don’t want the government once again reaching into their plates, telling them what they can eat and how much of it they can drink. We have already seen this with letter grading. We have seen it with trans fats. The mayor’s talked about limiting the amount of salt and now the size of beverages. 

I think our industry is certainly opposed to this, has very serious concerns and the public does as well. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I guess my question is, since obesity is a problem, why not encourage consumers to do the right thing? 

ANDREW MOESEL: Well, I think you use a great word, encourage. We should be encouraging consumers through education, both at the younger level and also that the city has had public advertisements in subways and other places telling people the risks of sugary beverages and other foods. 

We believe that education and proper advocacy and voluntary measures that the restaurant industry has already undertaken within the city of New York and others to help New Yorkers eat more healthy foods more often, but this, mandating what people can eat, is just not the way to do it. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commissioner Farley, why not leave it as voluntary measures, as we were just discussing, just encourage people to limit their intake of these sugary drinks? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: Well, because of the economics of supersizing, restaurants are driven to offer larger sizes. 

The costs to give you a sugary drink or, for that matter, food products is often pretty fixed. So if a restaurant can offer you a much larger size, they can charge more for it. They make greater profit. That economic drive is going to stay there no matter what we do.

The size of a sugary drink has risen from the 1960s to now from about six-and-a-half ounces for Coke up now to 20 ounces are standard, and they’re selling one-liter bottles. That’s a multifold increase in the portion size and it’s not been driven by consumer demand. It’s been driven the size portions that are put out there by the beverage industries. 

So unless we do something, we are going to continue to feed this major national epidemic. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Moesel, what about that point, that it’s — a lot of this is driven by how much money the beverage industry can make? 

ANDREW MOESEL: Well, certainly, that’s one of our concerns, is that there’s a large portion of the bottom line in some hospitality businesses that is driven by beverages. 

But you have to understand that restaurants don’t serve food to get people sick, to make them obese. They serve products that the customer base wants to have. It’s the free-market system. We think that this mayor of the city of New York would understand that better than anyone else. We’re doing this as a response to customer demand, not to bilk more money out of people by getting them to drink sugary drinks. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commissioner Farley, how did you decide on 16 ounces? Why not 12 ounces or eight ounces, which might be too much sugar for a smaller person? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: Well, we certainly think that 16 ounces is ample. That’s 180 calories. That’s about 10 percent of what an average person needs in a day. 

We want people to be — they still need to be responsible, but we think that that’s ample. But still it’s far less than what people are buying now. And at fast food chains in New York City, close to half of people are purchasing beverages that are larger than that. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Larger than 16 ounces? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: Larger than 16 ounces, yes. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the other point? I guess I heard the mayor say to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC that people — nothing is to stop people from buying several drinks. So, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of this? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: Well, people absolutely can buy more than that, and so this is not limiting people’s choice to drink a lot if they want to. 

But we know from portion size studies that if you give people a portion, they tend to see that as the default, and they consume that. And if you give them larger or smaller portions, they will consume that and feel satisfied either way. And so even though they have that freedom, by establishing the default as being no larger than 16 ounces, we believe people will consume less and it will be good for everyone’s health without restricting people’s freedom of choice. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you want to respond to that, Andrew Moesel, that it sounds like what the city is trying to do is set a standard, just get people to think more about what they’re doing when they buy these big drinks?

ANDREW MOESEL: Again, I have to reiterate that I think the way they do that is through education.

And we have to remember here that we’re setting a standard, but we’re also creating a very slippery slope. If we set a standard on this, we set a standard of 16 ounces, what’s to stop us from saying that we can only have 16 french fries on a plate with hamburger or you can only have one hot dog a day, hot dog vendors can only serve one to each customer?

We don’t want to get into that kind of debate and I don’t think New Yorkers do either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commissioner Farley, you want to respond? What is to stop the city from regulating french fries or the size of an ice cream scoop, for that matter? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: Yes, we haven’t considered portion size regulation in anything other than these sugary drinks, because they are particularly associated with weight gain, associated with diabetes and associated with heart disease.

And we see that as a major driver of the obesity epidemic. So, we are focused very narrowly on that type of product here, but we think that the magnitude of the health problem we’re dealing with calls for that. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with all due respect, isn’t, I don’t know, candy bars, french fries, aren’t they contributing as well? 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: There’s been an increase in the portion size of french fries, but not nearly to the many times increase that we have seen in sugary drinks over the last 30, 40 years. And there actually hasn’t been that much of an increase in candy consumption.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Andrew Moesel, the Restaurant Association, how do you plan to deal with this? 

ANDREW MOESEL: Well, we’re talking to our members right now. We’re still very early the process. Most of the people we spoke are adamantly opposed to increased regulation, of which we already face some of the most stringent regulation of any restaurants anywhere in the country. 

We’re going to bring our members together. We’re going to come up with a plan. I look forward to talking with the commissioner and making adjustments or opposing things outright in this proposal of the mayor’s. And, ultimately, we’re going to try to come to something that we can all live with. 

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Andrew Moesel, city chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, and Commissioner Thomas Farley, who is the health commissioner for the city, thank you very much. 

DR. THOMAS FARLEY: Thank you.