Big soda wins its day in court

March 11, 2013

Kim Ward sips an extra large soft drink from McDonald's in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City's ban on big drinks has, apparently, run into some big trouble.

A New York State Supreme Court judge has halted the new regulation banning sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, which was supposed to take effect Tuesday. He described the law as "arbitrary," questioning whether it would actually lead to the intended decline in obesity rates.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a man of many public health pursuits — and this isn't the first time one of them has been held up in legal action. In 2006, a city regulation that required all chain restaurants to post calorie labels quickly came under fire.

As it was initially written, the calorie labeling law only required restaurants to post the nutritional information if they had already made it available to the public, usually on a Web site. The New York State Restaurant Association challenged that law as, in a way, arbitrary: It didn't treat all restaurants the same.

A New York federal district court agreed with the challengers and the calorie labels were halted. The city, however, was undeterred: It simply revised its regulations to apply to all chain restaurants, regardless of whether they had posted the calorie information publicly.

Once that change was made, the calorie labels went back to court. This time, the New York State Restaurant Association challenged the labels as a First Amendment violation. The federal district court didn't buy that line of argument because of the public health goals the new regulation advanced.

"The court found no First Amendment violation because the mandatory disclosures of factual information were rationally related to the city's interest in reducing obesity," Christine Cusick writes in an excellent history of the legal battle.

The calorie labels have stood as law ever since the Second Circuit reaffirmed that ruling.

Will the soda ban see similar success? There is one interesting parallel between the two regulations, in that both were challenged as being arbitrary. The soda ban outlaws big cups, but doesn't say anything about unlimited refills. Soy-based milk substitutes are allowed an exemption, but rice-based milk substitutes don't make the cut.

Perhaps most famously, 7-Eleven's Big Gulps appear  to get a free pass, as the convenience store is not under the health department's jurisdiction.

"The rule is ... fraught with arbitrary and capricious consequences," federal judge Milton Tingling wrote in his ruling. "The simple reading of the Rule leads to ... uneven enforcement even within a particular city block."

It's possible that New York City could try to remedy this in the same way it saved the calorie labels: By making the regulation even more sweeping, and lessening the exemptions to the soda portion cap. New York City has announced its plan to appeal that ruling.

But there are a host of other legal issues that Tingling brought up that pose different challenges to the soda ban. He argued that the board of health does not have authority to "limit or ban a legal item under the guise of 'controlling chronic disease,' " and that such authority would instead fall to the City Council.

The calorie labels ultimately survived their legislative challenges and will soon go national: The Affordable Care Act requires all chain restaurants to add similar labels to their menus soon. Whether the soda ban will have a similarly wide reach remains to be seen.

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Brad Plumer | March 11, 2013