Will New York City’s large soda ban backfire?

April 14, 2013
A 64-ounce drink is displayed alongside other soft drink cup sizes at a news conference at City Hall in New York in May. (Andrew Burton - Reuters) A 64-ounce drink is displayed alongside other soft drink cup sizes at a news conference at City Hall in New York in May. (Andrew Burton - Reuters)

The whole Idea of New York City's (currently delayed) large sugary drinks ban was to get New Yorkers to consume less soda. But what if they actually ended up drinking more with such a regulation in effect?

That's the question raised in a new peer-reviewed paper from Brent Wilson, Stephanie Stolarz-Fantino and Edmund Fantino, which looks at what drinks people order when cup size gets capped at 16 ounces.

The researchers gave 100 study participants three different menus to order from, and asked to imagine what they would buy at a fast food restaurant or a movie theater. One had drink sizes ranging from 16 to 32 ounces. On a second menu, soda options ranged from one 16-ounce drink, a package of two 12-ounce drinks and a package of two 16-ounce drinks. A third menu only had one option: one, 16-ounce soda.

Soda pricing was equal among settings; that is, one 24-ounce drink and two 12-ounce drinks cost the same ($1.79, a price the researchers took from the McDonald's menu). So the whole idea was to see how customers might react to a bundle of small sodas versus one, larger drink.

What they found: Participants offered the bundled menu tended to order a larger amount of soda.

Those in a non-bundling scenario did tend to order less soda—they only had one option, the 16-ounce drink. But, perhaps surprisingly, bundling two small sodas together lead to orders that were larger than the scenario where large cup sizes were included.

"These results show that businesses should earn significantly more revenue when bundles are offered than when small drink sizes alone are offered," the study authors write. "This means restaurants have a strong incentive to convert their original-sized drinks into bundles so they do not lose a major source of revenue."

This is obviously one small study and it also wasn't able to look at how much people would actually drink of the sodas they ordered, another important factor in determining calorie intake. It does provide some evidence though, that when it comes to soda, outlawing large sizes might not lead to the desired result.

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