Soda Debate Bubbles Over

Here is how to talk about the mayor’s ban of big sodas: If you are opposed, those who peddle the sweet and fuzzy stuff are akin to drug dealers, its makers are like tobacco manufacturers, and the drinks themselves are contributing to a virus that slays more than 5,000 workers a year.

If you are in favor, those working the ban are like the Gestapo—they want to tell us what time we need to go to bed each night. The ban is one of the great civil rights struggles of our time. Proponents hate small business and workers.

So it went for several hours at the Board of Health hearing in Queens yesterday, the final hearing prior to the full board’s vote in September on whether or not to limit the size of soda sold in movie theaters, restaurants and fast-food joints. In five-minute bursts, dozens of elected officials, advocates and members of the public testified about the measure, while the testifying table slowly filled with props—a plate of vegetables, an oversized KFC soda bucket, a bottle of vitamin water.

Because the size-ban is so limited—consumers will not be forbidden from buying any amount of soda they choose, only the container it comes in; the ban doesn’t apply to grocery stores or bodegas and the like—and yet somehow so overreaching (first they came for our salt, and I did not speak up, one opponent of the measure said), both sides found their language scrambled.

Oliver Koppell, a liberal city councilman from the Bronx, joined Dan Halloran, a Tea Party councilman in Queens, in opposing the measure, and even quoted Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s warning from the health care hearing about mandating the consumption of broccoli.

“Beer is very sweet and has a lot of sugar and is not regulated at all,” he said, ignoring for the moment the myriad ways in which beer is regulated. (Just ask any 19-year-old, or any thirsty adult on a Sunday morning.)

The ban, Mr. Koppell added, would not keep anyone from buying as many small sodas as they liked, and thus was unnecessary. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, agreed, telling reporters that the ban would not keep anyone from buying as many small sodas as they liked, and thus was not an infringement on civil liberties. Why not focus on increasing access to healthier foods and places to exercise, opponents argued. We are, proponents said.

Those who support the ban accused the soda industry of acting like other businesses that have been criticized for their effect on public health—the restauranteurs who wailed about new rules banning transfats and limiting salts, only to find those measures popular with the public. They said soda makers are running an astro-turf campaign, generating  faux -grassroots support in the language of patriotism to push something which, in the end, would only affect their bottom line and the city’s collective waistline.

Even on this, the other side agreed.

“I think the beverage industry has a vested industry in this thing,” announced City Councilman Robert Jackson, “and you know what? That’s appropriate!”

Soda Debate Bubbles Over