Yet American waistlines continued to swell, with two-thirds of adults and one-third of children now overweight or obese — a major factor in the country’s health-care crisis, because obesity can trigger expensive chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.
By the early 2000s, policymakers began focusing their energies on a new target: soft drinks. High in calories and with no nutritional value, sodas are a huge source of added sugar in the American diet. Study after study shows that people who drink the most non-diet soda are at the highest risk for obesity.
But in the face of intense lobbying from drinkmakers, efforts to tax and regulate soft drinks have foundered.
This past week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) tried a new tactic: He proposed limiting sugary drinks sold by restaurants, cinemas, street vendors and stadiums in his city to 16 ounces. (Grocery stores would be exempt.)
“We know that portion size
influences consumption,” said Thomas Farley, New York’s health commissioner. “We know that portion sizes have risen dramatically. And we know that sugary drinks have this uniquely strong connection with weight gain.”
The move intensified the debate over how far government should go to steer individual behavior in the name of health and drew immediate scorn from the $75 billion-per-year soft drink industry.
“Here they go again,” said Chris Gindlesperger, spokesman for the American Beverage Association, an industry group. “The New York City health department has an unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks. It’s over the top. It’s overreach. The city is not going to address the obesity problem by attacking soda, because soda is not driving the obesity rate.”
A group funded by restaurants began running ads in New York branding Bloomberg — depicted in a dowdy dress with a scarf around his neck — as “the nanny.”
“You only thought
you lived in the land of the free,” read the newspaper ad placed by the Center for Consumer Freedom, which sourcewatch.org says represents the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco and other industries.
Fast-food giant McDonald’s weighed in with a tweet to Bloomberg on Friday: “We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them.”
But public health advocates contend that letting everyone make their own choices has led the country to $192 billion per year in medical bills for obesity-
related care. That’s a tab everyone ends up paying part of via Medicare, Medicaid and soaring rates for private health insurance.
“There is nobody on the face of the planet who needs a soda, let alone a 32-ounce soda,” said Robert Lustig, a pediatric obesity researcher at the University of California at San Francisco who is a vocal proponent of restrictions on sugary drinks.