New Yorkers Line Up Against the City’s “Soda Ban”

It's a debate much of the country — including state and city public officials, a wide spectrum of businesses, labor and everyday consumers — is watching with close interest.

At issue is the controversial decision by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city’s Department of Health, which voted in mid-September to ban some of the city’s businesses from selling sugar-sweetened beverages in containers larger than 16 ounces. The ban was approved in mid-September and is scheduled to go into effect next March. It focuses on keeping those larger-sized drinks out of sports arenas, restaurants, some shops and concession stands – or from being sold on the street.

NYC Businesses Feel the Economic Impact

Given the challenging economic times, there are concerns that the ban could further undermine thousands of New York pizza parlors, delis and other small, traditional "mom-and-pop" businesses that provide food, beverages and other essentials to the city’s neighborhoods. Many of these businesses already face financial pressures with the economy still struggling to recover. Critics of the ban say the new regulations also create some large loopholes, that will only serve to confuse people. For example, any beverage that is at least half-milk or milk substitute is exempt from the New York ban — as are free beverage refills at restaurants. The ban has also prompted considerable concern among small business owners who feel they will be put at a competitive disadvantage by the arbitrary nature of the ruling. Under the ban, a restaurant will be unable to sell a large sugary drink, but a convenience store right next door will. 

“You are going to end up putting the small businesses out of business,” Mark Tumminello, who owns a Dunkin' Donuts in upper Manhattan, told the New York Daily News. “It’s unfair. [Customers] can’t come here and get what they want … it affects our profitability.”

Some restaurant owners in the city worry the ban may be part of a greater effort to control how New Yorkers eat. “The next thing you’re going to tell me is I’m not going to be able to serve a burger over the size of 4 ounces?” wonders Jeffrey Rogers, owner and executive chef of the Nu Urban Café in Queens. “I’ve got a 10-ounce burger on the menu now.”

Nearly 3,000 organizations have come out against the ban, as part of a group called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. The coalition has more than half a million online supporters — as well as the blessing of several thousand New York restaurants, cafes and newsstands. It also has the support of city neighborhood associations, the National Fitness Foundation, AMC Entertainment, Regal Entertainment Group, 7-Eleven, the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, dozens of manufacturers, a variety of Hispanic, Indian American and Korean American groups, as well as Teamsters Local 182, transportation organizations and theater owners.

“The average New Yorker only goes to the movies four times a year and purchases concessions twice,” says Robert Sunshine, executive director of the National Association of Theatre Owners of New York State. “The choices made during the other 363 days out of the year have a much greater impact on public health and serious issues like obesity. With ticket sales this summer at a 10-year low, this ban will only serve to further reduce lines at theaters, not the waistlines of our patrons.”

Political Pushback Against the Soda Ban

There’s been political as well as economic pushback to Mayor Bloomberg’s so-called “soda ban.” Recent surveys say a majority of New Yorkers dislike the measure. A New York Times poll found 60 percent of New Yorkers opposed the soda ban, and according to a Quinnipiac University poll soon after the ban was passed found 51 percent of city residents surveyed were against the regulations

A significant number of New York lawmakers are also speaking out against the ban. “Truly, I think it’s smoke and mirrors,” says City Councilman Leroy Comrie. “If they really wanted to be serious about lowering sugar, they should address that.”

Other city government representatives are asking Mayor Bloomberg to address the obesity issue in larger ways — such as helping to fund and develop more public parks in New York. “There’s no one that wants to combat obesity in our community more than I do,” says Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who represents Elmhurst, Queens. “The good intentions may be there, but I think we need to look at the full impact of this. It just doesn’t make sense.”

"This is just a distraction. It doesn't get at the root of the issue," says East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito — who believes school exercise programs and more access to healthy foods should be a priority. "How do we make open space more available? That's difficult and more challenging than this sound-bite policy.”

Shortly after the Board of Health passed the Mayor’s ban, a legal challenge was filed by a broad coalition opposed to the ban. The plaintiffs group consists of a variety of New York businesses and workers represented by city, state and national associations, including the Teamsters Local 812, Korean-American Grocers Association of New York, National Association of Theatre Owners of New York State, National Restaurant Association, New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and the American Beverage Association (ABA).

Industry Responses and Activism

For its part, Coca-Cola has long worked to promote a healthy and active lifestyle for all people. Some major company actions include a responsible marketing policy, compliance with the industry’s school beverage guidelines and factual, up-front nutrition information on the front of most of our beverages

In addition, the company recently joined with the ABA to launch a $5 million “Wellness Challenge” between two major U.S. cities – Chicago and San Antonio – to see which city’s employees and their families can be the healthiest and lose the most weight. And starting next year, Coca-Cola vending machines (as well as other beverage companies’ vending machines) in both Chicago and San Antonio will have calorie information listed on each beverage selected by people there. That “Calories Count” vending program will become a national program later in 2013.

“While other city governments have proposed misguided restrictions or legislation that limit consumer choice and hurt business, Chicago and San Antonio have chosen a different, more productive path,” says Coca-Cola Refreshments president and CEO Steve Cahillane. “This collaboration is a shining example of what can happen when business, government and civil society work together.”

In the meantime, a growing number of voices are joining the chorus against the New York soda ban — claiming it's a misguided government attempt to treat some popular soft drinks as dangerous to society.

“If we want to reverse the obesity epidemic — as we must — then the policies we choose must be more nuanced and more positive," commented physician and author David Gratzer in a recent Huffington Post blog.