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June 19, 2012

Will a NYC Ban on Large Sugary Sodas Decrease Obesity or Increase Plastic Waste?

 

When I first heard about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sales of sugary drinks over 16oz from restaurants, delis, movie theaters, street carts and sports venues, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it.  The issue was interesting, but I don’t drink sugary soda and I don’t live in New York, so I kind of didn’t pay attention, until one of my blogger friends brought up the issue in a green chat group.

Are Sugary Beverages the Same as Plastic Bags?

Blogger Karen Lee wondered how banning large sugary drinks was any different from banning plastic bags. We all seemed to agree that plastic bags cause environmental harm that affects us all–especially animals that have no say in the matter–and that people should not be free to pollute. But aren’t diseases related to obesity also an environmental issue that ultimately raises healthcare costs for all of us? Maybe so. But who says sugary beverages are the main culprit? Will banning large sodas lead to bans of other types of foods whose health impacts are more debatable? And would this ban even reduce the amounts of sugary beverages consumed in the first place?

Karen published a great piece on why she feels the ban is a bad idea. She writes that while her family generally doesn’t drink soda and eats a very wholesome diet overall,

When my family goes to the movie theater, maybe once a year, we do buy a humongous sized soda and four of us share it because it’s cheaper to buy the large size – you know, the good ole, ‘for extra 25 cents, you can get the next large size…’ trick that they play on us? Well, we gladly fall for that because it’s so much cheaper AND we can’t finish 2 medium sizes! But now we’d be forced to buy 2 mediums?

And that is what got me thinking about another possible unintended side effect of this proposed regulation: Will people who want to drink more soda simply buy two smaller ones, increasing the packaging to product ratio and generating more plastic waste?

More Plastic Waste or Less Plastic Waste?

I don’t know the answer to this question. If the super-size ban caused people to drink less soda, then perhaps the amount of waste from cups and bottles would decrease. But if people simply choose to buy more than one, then the packaging waste will increase. What are people more likely to do? In an article in The Atlantic last week, researchers Brian Wansink and David Just, who conducted the studies showing that giving people unlimited portions causes them to consume more, argue that Mayor Bloomberg misread their work in his appeal to science. In fact, they believe that when people are overtly denied portions they are used to getting, they will compensate by choosing to consume more. And they worry that if this type of ban fails to achieve its goal of reducing obesity (which they believe it will) then it could “poison the water for ideas that may have more potential.”

One idea they favor, and which research editor Maddie Oatman promotes in an article in Mother Jones, is a “soda tax”–a per ounce tax on beverages with added sugar. A tax like that would give people an incentive to drink less.

From a plastic point of view, I would like to see a tax on all plastic-bottled drinks, whether they are full of sugar or not. After all, there is debate about what kinds of beverages cause the most harm… some people say those with high fructose corn syrup are the worst. Others say all fructose is harmful in large amounts, so we shouldn’t be drinking tons of juice either.  There are those who believe that artificial sweeteners are even worse than sugar. And then there’s bottled water… well, it may be the healthiest of all the plastic-bottled beverages, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing bottled in plastic is a healthy choice.

But what do you think? Is New York City right to ban sugary drinks over 16 ounces from restaurants and other public spaces (grocery stores are not included), or is there a better way to get people to consume less sugar and less plastic?



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36 comments
ChristianWagley
ChristianWagley

When you measure the average person's daily environmental impact, the impact from a few cups of soda is so minuscule as to be pretty much unnoticeable against the other things--transportation, diet, and home energy use . This is what the science tells us. Fretting about such tiny things takes us away from the big things that matter most. 

kim
kim

I think that trying to encourage people to cut back on the amount of soda they consume is a great idea, but I'm not sure about the ban as far as waste goes.  At the coffee shop I work at in North Carolina, we only serve one size (12 oz, for a number of reasons) and that means that some people will order two lattes or two black coffees. If people do this for coffee then I see no reason why people wouldn't do that for soda. 

Jess
Jess

I think someone else mentioned they'd just rather see standard sizing across the drinks. I am always trying to find the smallest size when I eat fast food (too frequently, unfortunately) and it would be 100 times nicer if a small was always 12 ounces, medium 20, etc. This would also make more sense than banning something we also actively subsidize, though to be fair to Mayor Bloomberg, he doesn't subsidize it as a mayor, it's on a larger scale than he can do anything about (from my understanding, maybe he has more influence than I realize).

TigerLee
TigerLee

I hadn't even thought about the high fructose corn syrup angle - Eco Cat LAdy. Good point.

 

GreenDiva
GreenDiva

Haha Amy. That's kind of the point though, if you scare people into thinking it will be taxed it causes an awareness without even having to rolliut the tax. EcoCL, you are correct about subsidies but alas, it is more realistic to make changes on the size of soft drinks than it is to change what crops are subsidized.

amy
amy

Yikes! Don't use the tax. It scares people.  The word fee is the preferred term.

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

My personal opinion on the topic of sugary drinks is that it's ludicrous to tax and/or ban them on one end while subsidizing them on the other. The vast majority of these beverages are made with cheap, government subsidized corn syrup. If we'd just stop subsidizing corn in the first place (and sugar too while we're at it - which is also subsidized but in a more complicated way) then the price would go up naturally - and it would free up millions of our tax dollars to do something that might be a tad bit more beneficial than promoting obesity and diabetes. 

 

Just one radical's humble opinion!

monkeyjen
monkeyjen

"increasing the packaging to product ratio and generating more plastic waste" that was exactly my point when I posted this on FB a couple weeks ago. I also thought maybe the packaging and bottling people were behind this ;) Not to mention this Is completely inane and is just some lame "look what I.did!" law or something. Why not ban big macs? No hamburgers over 6oz! No bags of potato chips over 7oz! Hey you, put that frappucino DOWN!

GFreeHappyTummy
GFreeHappyTummy

a very good point! i hadn't thought of that! thanks for sharing!

GreenDiva
GreenDiva

I disagree with the ban and all for the tax. The article in MJ makes very valid points about banning versus taxation and which is the most effective.

 

"Just talking about a tax could spark change. Could awareness about the reason for taxing soda in the first place nudge some consumers to think more about how much sweetener they're inhaling? "Humans are myopic," Bhanot says. "Making soda consumers pay more is an economic mechanism to combat their natural tendency to be shortsighted."

Lustig agrees with this rationale: "It shines light on the issue, so people can determine for themselves whether this is a public health problem or not."

"What if the government had said: AIDS, we don't care about, TB, we don't care. Where would we be?" he continues. "Public health matters. Exposures cause problems in public health…There's no single piece of legislation that's going to solve the problem, but this would be a smart beginning."

Mark Duncan
Mark Duncan

@Beth Unfortunately, it would probably be exactly like tobacco taxes (which do not completely go to health-related issues). Most states put these sort of taxes into funds that are then directed to pet projects, when they are give to health issues, the related agencies get a drop in other government funding. Example: The National Cancer Institute has seen no increase in funding, despite a large revenue increase from tobacco taxes. Except for true luxury-item taxes, most product and sales taxes negatively affect the poor, and have little affect on the rich. The money, and how it's spent, becomes political leverage and seldom goes back to help the poor. Even money spent on health research is a gift to wealthy pharmaceutical companies and their eventual insurance customer/clients.

Mark Duncan
Mark Duncan

@ Caralien: My experience with friends (and myself) has been that the only thing that took weight off and kept it away for more than a year or two, was a serious increase in regular exercise. With the exception of a highly-motivated and permanent change to a vegan diet, most people return to normal eating behavior patterns within two years. (And stronger depression levels often follow.) People eat at the level they are going to eat, based on so many influences that it is practically impossible to change diet for long. Exercise, on the other hand, doesn't come with the same reward mechanisms as food. It is possible for an overweight person to add 30 minutes of exercise twice a day to their routine, and keep it going forever.

Clif
Clif

It's a bit strange that a billionaire who indulges himself in multiple houses and flying his own helicopter is acting to deny the average citizen the pleasure of a little more sugary water.

 

That aside, we know that the pricing model is meant to encourage more consumption of anything. Buying two small drinks is quite a bit more expensive than getting the same amount in a larger drink. The issue is that inducement to consume by lowering the cost per unit of whatever is being offered for sale: the Sam's Club idea.

 

Regarding education - what could be more educational than the awful body state of the average American citizen and the epidemic of diabetes? Fatness is ever present and obvious. If people are ignoring what this is telling them, even when it is true of their own body, they you have to look beyond reason to find the culprit in psychology and physiology. Psychology tells us that satisfied, happy people do not over-consume because there is no purpose to it - it cannot add to their pleasure - peace of mind is a good that requires no purchases. Physiology tell is that humans as animals are designed to over-consume when the opportunity presents itself to tide themselves over for lean periods that, of course, are no longer experienced.

 

Ergo: combine the market imperative of pushing quantity with the anxiety of modern Americans that seeks relief in physical satisfaction, and the in-built animal gorging imperative and you have an unstoppable problem that leaves education in the dust.

 

The drink size issue is a tiny indicator of the inherent problem of Western lifestyle - consumption without limit.

 

All one can do is follow good examples, of which Beth is one. Most will be deaf to the appeal. A different way of life will come, unlikely to appear in my lifetime, but collapse of the present system is a necessary forerunner for it to happen.

 

 

Mortira
Mortira

These types of bans really scare me. We are heading towards a society where governments tell us what is bad for us, and therefore, what is good for us as well. Take your vaccines and Soma tablets and relax, in other words. This is the kind of mentality that got us stuck in the plastic rut in the first place - simply accepting what we are given.

Anne Rainy Woods
Anne Rainy Woods

Maybe more people will start using waxed paper cups to serve their soda. Now that the drink isn't intended to last all day perhaps a less sturdy container is more feasible.

Caralien Miller Speth
Caralien Miller Speth

I rarely get anything in disposable plastic containers like bottles, and use my steel bottles & coffee mug religiously (self & daughter). Marketing wise, people buy one per person or single family, regardless of size or thirst, so no, it won't increase plastic use. Bottles and cups ARE more easily recycled in more communities than plastic bags, so even if we all should know that it takes 4-5x the water to ship a single plastic container of liquid, water or HFCS, at least it's more likely to be attempted to be recycled than a plastic bag, which is more likely to end up in the gyre or landfill. The deposit on the bottles is an incentive/tax for people to correctly recycle cans & bottles, as anyone who has heard the middle of the night collectors can attest. You're not going to change people overnight just as the change in soda's status from alcohol replacement (soft drink) to water/milk replacement took about a century of advertisements for acceptance. Some of us did not grow up with sodas or artificial beverages, and even many who did are now trying to pass on better & healthier behaviors to their children. I'm all for a sugar tax and snack food tax.

Julie Marsall
Julie Marsall

Oh, well in my state they never use our taxes on what they say they are going to use it on and they waste millions every year, In Washington we have been taxed to death to the point of passing an initiative requiring all new taxes to be put to a vote of the people, which the governor ignored requiring another initiative to reverse the taxes she signed into law.--soda and bottled water tax. People here would overturn any new taxes, we have the highest sin taxes in the country, the highest gas taxes, the most expensive cigarettes (our governor spearheaded the tobacco suit when she was AG) and can't take any more.

My Plastic-free Life
My Plastic-free Life

It could be. Like cigarette taxes where the money goes to fund cancer research.

Carmen Melton
Carmen Melton

I agree with the other Beth Terry! A ban would just cause people to find another way, and it wouldn't be for suddenly growing a health conscious of self or environment. We always take our own concealed glass bottles full of a beverage from home, but I can't imagine that ever becoming the norm. Corporate snack makers wouldn't allow it. They'd find some way to entice the masses. So I think the answer lies with education, even though we know that system has been corrupted too. Sigh. Just keep up the good fight, and know there are many of us right behind you! We can always hope that common sense and a higher awareness will prevail in the end:)

Julie Marsall
Julie Marsall

Problem with any kind of tax to help is that the taxes won't be spent to fix the problem, and that makes it a punishment tax...

My Plastic-free Life
My Plastic-free Life

Caralien Speth, actually plastic cup and bottle recycling is problematic. Check out the recycling chapter in my new book. It's not a solution to the problem and can create even more environmental problems. The only real, sustainable solution to the plastic problem is to cut consumption. And my question is whether this law would actually increase consumption of plastic.

Anne Rainy Woods
Anne Rainy Woods

I can't begin to answer this question without understanding why on earth someone would buy a giant soda to begin with. I think all soda cups should have this reminder printed on them "YOU ARE NOT A HUMMINGBIRD"

PureMothers
PureMothers

Bans like these are always a bad idea. I live in the UK and they are proposing a fat tax, like some other EU countries have done. But that includes coconut oil and other healthy fats. (While most (rancid) vegetable oils are worse for you). Some people think all fat is created equal and all sugars are created equal. What could be next a large bottle of green tea sweetened with honey (hopefully packaged in glass!) It's up to parents to teach their children about making healthy choices. I think government giving nutrition advice is a bad idea. Look at our Food Pyramid - ridiculous and hasn't increased America's health. I like Beth's idea of a plastic bottle tax better. 

sara
sara

This is a great point.  The best argument I have heard for the large soda ban is that it may not do much in the short term, but it COULD teach kids that super giant sized portions are not and should not be the norm.  If you look at how the normal portion size has grown in recent years, it is totally crazy - and I do think that if kids grow up seeing a more reasonable portion size rather than a totally insane one, that could have a long term benefit and create long term change.

Debra Foster
Debra Foster

I like the per ounce tax idea. And while they're at it, why not tax per ounce of plastic in the cup as well.

Caralien Miller Speth
Caralien Miller Speth

Weight is not regulated by consumption? Actually, yes it is. Eat more, exercise less, you gain weight. That's no myth. What is a myth is that diet changes don't work for more than a brief time--drastic & extreme diets only work temporarily, real change, done reasonably over time, lasts a lifetime.

Caralien Miller Speth
Caralien Miller Speth

Cups & bottles can easily be recycled, plastic bags, not so much. Additionally, this ban doesn't include any "dairy" beverage--including smoothies, shakes, and coffee drinks (Jamba Juice, Dunkin, McDs, Starbucks, Fruity Yogurt, FroYo) and ignores the fact that for 5 years, New Yorkers have ignored the calorie count listed on chain restaurant menus--it's not as though anyone actually cares how much crap they're consuming and no one thinks that it's actually healthy. Plastic bags, on the other hand, can easily be replaced by reusable bags--have a drive to collect all of the unused reusable bags many of us already have to distribute to the poor, or switch back to compostable paper bags.

Beth Terry the other one
Beth Terry the other one

Beth - you bring up a great point. Managing plastic bottles and bags is one thing. That's a consumer convenience item that companies can control by offering options and incentives. When govts start messing with what we eat, drink, and even smoke... the research shows they actually INCREASE the usage rather than decrease it. Humans have a weird little switch in our heads that goes something like, "Oh YEAH? Try and STOP ME!"  I call it the "inner brat."

 

And as was pointed out, the hypocrisy of this control-freak mayor showed rather quickly when he celebrated the almighty donut the same week he was banning soft drinks. I think the problem with people who have loads of money is they think because they have it, they are worth it. And they think those who aren't as rich as them somehow should kowtow to their value system.

 

I applaud environmental efforts to reduce pollution. I fear governmental efforts to encroach on our Liberty at every turn!

 

Thanks for blogging about this!

Beth

Mark Duncan
Mark Duncan

Weight is not regulated by consumption. This myth has been played to death since the 50's. (Diet changes don't work for more than a brief time.) This ban wouldn't have any affect on the weight of New Yorkers, and will increase the waste. However, it will never become law. Bloomberg is already looking for a way to gracefully back off from the plan.

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

 @PureMothers I agree that a plastic bottle tax is better... actually I think it would be MUCH better if there were national deposit laws on all "disposable" containers. It would serve some of the same purpose as a tax but would make the companies producing the crap take some responsibility for dealing with it at the end of its excruciatingly short lifespan.

EcoCatLady
EcoCatLady

Why not come up with some sort of size standards for the beverage industry so they couldn't call a gimongous beverage a "medium" etc.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Sara, do you think a tax might work better than a ban on certain sizes?

Girlunderthesea
Girlunderthesea

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2134162/Research-shows-trying-lose-weight-alters-brain-hormones-youre-doomed-pile-again.html

I know this is late, but in case anyone else comes across this post I wanted to show that she is wrong.  Even long term healthy life changes don't cause maintained weight loss.  95 percent of dieters gain the weight back.  The whole unhealthy dieting versus healthy dieting is a smoke screen just used to further blame fat people.  So when fat people say they diet and they don't lose the weight people can just claim , oh that's cause you dieted wrong.  It is true that the only way to lose any weight is through calorie restriction and excerise.  But humans are not machines what works for one does not work for another.  For 95 percent of people only unhealthy calorie restriction will cause them to both lose weight and maintain it.  Just further proof that weight is not an indicator of health.  A fat person can be healthy and a thin person can be unhealthy. And a further note it is also okay to be unhealthy.  We are humans, we get to make our own choices and whether someone is healthy or not should not change how they are treated. 

sara
sara

 @BethTerry I'm not sure.  I do think that a partial ban on cigarettes/smoking, for example, has really worked (i.e. can't do it in most businesses, can do it at home or on the sidewalk) - not eliminated, but significantly reduced.  In some ways, this is pretty similar - you can drink whatever size beverage you want at home, but if you're buying it in a restaurant, you have to stick to a reasonable size container.  (It is not as if the "ban" is literally preventing people from buying a 2-liter and drinking all of it in one sitting, if they choose to do so at home or in a park.)  If you think of seeing unreasonable portion sizes as the norm in public as something that negatively affects people other than the drinker (i.e. kids who think it is ok to consume a beverage of over 1000 calories - which some of those movie-size drinks are - in one sitting), the same way as second hand smoke or the sense that smoking is a cool activity to do in bars, then I think the ban can make sense.  For instance, at least among the younger generation (I'm in my mid-twenties), I get the sense that smoking is really not a big thing among those I know - definitely way less than how things were in the past (my mom recounts that her first job working in a science lab was smoking environment!).  Most I know love that bars and restaurants are now smoke free and that everyone can enjoy them.  Anyway, it's not an exact analogy, but I think there is some connection there - if you can make huge portion sizes not the 'norm', I think that could go a long way toward teaching kids that these things are not normal/cool/healthy.

 

Ideally, we could combine a tax and a ban on huge sizes.  I think a tax alone would have to be enormous to make any difference on behavior.

Maddie
Maddie

Something I wanted to add.  I grew up in a household that ate a healthy diet.  Sweets and dessert were a treat. Lots of non-processed foods, fruts and vegetables.  When I was a teen and young adult, I was one of those that would purchase and drink a Big Gulp.  Why?  I am really not sure but am guessing it was the biggest size available at a cheap price.  I certainly would not have toted around two smaller drinks. Thankfully I lost the habit.

Maddie
Maddie

Great response Sara.  I think the ban is a great idea.  And I agree that the ban can help to discourage the idea that the monsterous size drinks are "normal".  The last time I was in a fast food place (it has been quite some time) I ordered a small fry and got this huge box of fries.  I honestly thought the cashier had made a mistake but discovered that in order to get what I thought was a small fry, one had to order the kiddie meal.  There is so much to say about who should take responsibility for health and what impact advertising has and how people should be educated but the fact remains that we are an unhealthy nation and it isn't in the financial interest of many of these big corporations for outr popuation to eat healthy.  Many of these corporations make more money with the bigger sizes.  Personally, I am dismayed to see the portion sizes grow larger and lareger over the years.

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