Yesterday, the New York City Board of Health approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial proposal to ban the sale of any soft drink containers over 16 ounces in size. By June of next year, restaurants, delis, movie theaters and food carts could face fines for selling oversized containers of sugary beverages.
The ban defines a “sugary beverage” as anything containing a sweetener that imparts more than 25 calories per 8-ounce serving and less than 51 percent dairy content.
Nominally a step to curb obesity, the change has been praised by health officials, while civil libertarians, theater operators and, of course, soda producers have heavily criticized it as an overreach by local government. The plan has also drawn fire for certain peculiar exemptions: It would not restrict milk (including milkshakes), fruit juices, diet soda or alcohol sales of any kind. Convenience stores are also exempt from the new regulations, which only apply to businesses that “receive inspection grades from the health department.”
Philadelphia, along with more than 30 states and several other major cities, has flirted with increased regulation and taxation of the soda industry, spearheaded by Mayor Michael Nutter. Nutter has frequently cited sugary beverages as a major contributor to urban obesity rates — Philadelphia’s is nearly double that of New York — and has made previous attempts to jack up taxes on soda sales.
Taxation avoids some of the “nanny state” jabs that have been directed at Bloomberg, and provides a new revenue stream while giving a minor disincentive to purchase soda. Nutter has twice tried and failed to introduce a 2-cent-per-ounce tax, foiled in both instances by City Council. Lobbyists and council members successfully painted the tax as a job killer, threatening several soda production and distribution facilities in Philadelphia.
Nutter said back in May that soda taxes “were not on [his] radar screen.” However, the example set by the nation’s largest city could provide an impetus to revive the effort.
“Mayor Nutter described the New York regulation as a significant public health initiative that should be taken seriously,” wrote Nutter press secretary Mark McDonald when reached by email, “and that he will be watching carefully as the new law plays out in New York.”
Ryan Briggs is an investigative reporter based in Philadelphia. He has contributed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, the Philadelphia City Paper, Philadelphia Magazine and Hidden City.