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NYC Soda Ban: Good for Health, but What About the Health of the Industry?

June 11, 2012 By: Emily Hanna Mayock

When I first sat down to write this blog, I was grabbing lunch at a local restaurant, consuming what can only be labeled as an “excessive amount of diet pop” (or soda, for the rest of you). So it’s only fitting that I was about to address New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recently introduced plan to ban large sugary beverages at on-premise establishments.

Granted, I favor diet pop—a delightful, calorie-free beverage that would not be banned under the proposal (even though study after study after study shows it can be harmful to your health). Plus, I live in Cleveland, where our mayor has introduced no such legislation. So, in reality, this may never affect me personally.

But it might. After all, it’s no question that New York City often is on the forefront of legislation that restricts certain rights to protect people’s health, and often cities, states and even entire countries follow suit. I can vividly remember hearing about New York’s smoking ban and being baffled by how such a thing could actually be upheld; fast-forward nearly 10 years and now I can’t imagine setting foot in a bar or restaurant that actually allows cigarette smoke to fill the air I breathe. New York also has been quick to move forth with a ban on trans fats in restaurant foods and a requirement for certain establishments to post calorie counts; both, in my opinion, are wise ideas that could benefit the health of individuals and lead them to make more health-conscious decisions—though they may not be great for business.

The National Restaurant Association, unsurprisingly, “strongly opposes” the potential ban, with NRA’s Executive Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs Scott DeFife saying: “There is no silver bullet in America's fight against obesity, and hyper-regulation such as this misplaces responsibility and creates a false sense of accomplishment. CDC research, which is consistent with industry and academic studies, shows that the vast majority of beverage calories consumed by the average American are not from sugary drinks obtained from restaurants, yet New York City's eateries are being unfairly singled out to ration portion size of single beverage servings.”

Fortunately, the ban would not include some juices as well as drinks that are more than 51% milk, such as milkshakes. In addition, it would not include alcohol beverages.

But alcohol beverages aren’t all of the on-premise beverage business; alcohol-free drinks are also critical to the bottom line of many restaurants. Market research firm NPD Group recently announced research on the top five beverages in foodservice; under the NYC soda ban, nearly all of today’s hottest drinks would be banned in sizes greater than 16 ounces. These trendy drinks are (in order) iced, frozen or slushy coffees; smoothies; cappuccino, espresso and lattes; iced tea; and frozen and slushy soft drinks. While a 16-ounce latte might seem reasonable enough, imagine relegating your guests to just one 16-ounce (sweetened) iced tea.

So where do I stand on the soda ban? To be honest, it’s a tricky issue for me. I am a bit of a health nut (as much as I despise that term and as much as I love diet pop), so I love hearing news that could mean major steps forward for the obesity epidemic and the health of individuals throughout the United States. Obesity has obviously become a major issue, and there’s no denying health care costs are on the rise because of issues related to obesity.

Plus, portion sizes in the U.S. have spun out of control. It’s unfathomable that someone could possibly require 32 ounces of sugary soft drinks in one sitting, yet that’s often the standard size at many dining outlets. By restricting the amount individuals take in while dining, it could scale back people’s desires to be more in line with what they actually need.

On the other hand, I’ve been devoted to writing about the on-premise business for years, and I care about the health of the industry for each and every individual business. Undoubtedly, this will hurt many operations in an industry that is finally beginning to rebound. According to an article in Nation’s Restaurant News, there are about 25,000 restaurants in New York’s five boroughs; if this picks up favor in other cities and states, the result could be detrimental. Alcohol-free beverages often are profit-making machines for on-premise restaurants, whether they’re fast-food or fine dining.

In addition, it takes away from the right of New Yorkers—and potentially others—to make their own decisions about what they choose to put in their bodies. Yes, consumers shouldn’t, for health reasons, drink multiple servings in one sitting, but wouldn’t it be more effective to inform and educate them about the effects rather than deny them the option to consume what they like?

If pressed, I would probably oppose the measure. Restaurants aren’t forcing these sugary drinks on consumers. It’s ultimately the individual’s decision whether or not to order them.

Besides, who knows where this slippery slope might take us. If New York bans soda today, could the city’s government try banning cookies or pizza or (gulp) alcohol tomorrow?

Sound off in the comments below. If you need me, I’ll be sitting in the corner with my 32-ounce diet cola.


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