Looking for our new site?

The New Health Dialogue

A Blog from New America's Health Policy Program

Drinks "gigantic enough for a small marine mammal to do laps in."

Published:  June 4, 2012
Publication Image

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's most recent public health proposal, to limit sugary beverages to 16 ounces in restaurants, theaters, food carts, and stadiums, has provoked a bit of controversy.

OK, that might be an understatement. The reaction has included furious opposition people claiming this is the nanny state run amok, applause from anti-obesity groups, and a fair amount of confusion over what, exactly, the policy will accomplish. Ta-Nehisi Coates, blogging at The Atlantic, asked for more information on how it might work, so here's the rationale: There is extensive evidence from psychology and behavioral economics that people respond to larger portions by eating more. The classic experiment in the field was run by Cornell researcher Brian Wansink: his team gave random sets of subjects either large or small buckets of popcorn, and tested how much they ate during a movie. People with larger buckets ate over 30% more than people with smaller buckets. The effect persisted even when they ran the experiment with  popcorn that was two weeks old: while subjects agreed that the popcorn didn’t taste good, they still ate it, and larger buckets still made people eat more.

The main thing that the ban could accomplish is to help people who just want a soda with lunch drink less of it. There are hundreds of thousands of people in New York every day who get a soda at lunch, and don't really care about how big it is. They want enough to wash down their pastrami on rye.  Those people will be perfectly content with 16 ounces instead of 24, and they'll probably end up drinking less because of the change. By drinking just a few ounces less a day, they can cut a few hundred calories out of each week. That adds up.

The size limit isn't the only option that might work to reduce soda consumption--Bloomberg pushed for a soda tax at the state level in 2010, but it died in the legislature--but nor is it as random as it initially appears. If it's enacted (which it probably will be: the Mayor has solid control over the Board of Health), it has a real chance to do some good.

And now, a collection of the reporting and opinions expressed so far:

Our own Shannon Brownlee has a piece up at TIME Ideas laying out the fast-food economics that created half-gallon sodas in the first place. http://ideas.time.com/2012/06/04/why-americans-need-bloombergs-big-gulp-ban/

Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni has an excellent take: with nearly a third of our adult population obese and facing serious health consequences, we're beyond the point of gentle nudges. There is a crisis, and Bloomberg is on the right track. This piece also provided the title of this post. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/opinion/sunday/bruni-trimming-a-fat-city.html

Sarah Kliff, on the Washington Post's Wonkblog, places this policy in the context of Mayor Bloomberg's other innovative public health efforts, many of which have spawned imitators across the country. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/mayor-mike-bloomberg-public-health-autocrat-a-brief-history/2012/06/04/gJQArSJbDV_blog.html

Molly Ball at The Atlantic points out that Bloomberg is perhaps uniquely able to push policies like these: he's a lame duck with no concern about re-election or his popularity, but he remains powerful and doesn't have to get cooperation on this from the city council. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/06/mike-bloomberg-doesnt-care-what-you-think/258001/

And finally, Jon Stewart finds himself in the painful position of agreeing with a Fox News commentator. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-may-31-2012/drink-different

Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.

Related Programs