SADANAND: Soda bans worth a shot

Bipartisanship in Congress may be a pipe dream, but it is alive and well in the Big Apple thanks to an impending soda ban which has united people of all political persuasions in anger.

On Sept. 13, the New York City Board of Health almost unanimously approved Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial proposal to ban sales of large (greater than 16 ounces) sodas and similarly sugary drinks in restaurants and movie theaters. The ban was approved in spite of widespread disapproval amongst New Yorkers — one New York Times poll showed that 60 percent of those asked thought it was a bad idea. My feelings on this issue are mixed. On the one hand, soda is unequivocally unhealthy (and, in my opinion, not tasty). At the same time, the idea of the government restricting access to a food product is a bit creepy and this seems to be a big part of why so many people oppose the ban.

But leaving aside its potentially Orwellian nature, is there actually data that support Mayor Bloomberg’s hypothesis that limiting access to large sugary drinks will curb obesity? Two recently published studies suggest that he may be right.

In one study, one group of overweight or obese teenagers received shipments of bottled water or diet soda every week for an entire year along with ongoing healthy eating advice while a control group did not. The experimental group gained, on average, significantly less weight and had healthier BMIs than the control group after one year. Notably, once intervention stopped, the difference disappeared.

In the second study, healthy-weight Dutch schoolchildren were randomly assigned to drink the same size sugar-sweetened or non-caloric, artificially sweetened drinks every day for a year and a half. Children who consumed high calorie, sugar-sweetened drinks gained more weight and had higher BMIs than children who did not. The results of these studies suggest that reducing or eliminating soda intake can significantly reduce weight gain, in contrast to the arguments of beverage industry officials who claim that soda does not constitute a sufficiently significant or regular part of most people’s diets to have a real effect on obesity. However, both these studies also demonstrated that weight and body fat reduction will require sustained intervention efforts — it is clearly not easy to change one’s diet on one’s own.

There is no doubt that obesity is a serious public health problem, even if its causality for many diseases is not as obvious as, say, the link between smoking and lung cancer. The majority of American adults and approximately one-third of American children are overweight or obese. Obesity is a risk factor for both heart disease and diabetes, two chronic diseases that affect many Americans and that are costly — both to the individual and society at large — to manage. Unfortunately, obesity reduction is more complex than simply eliminating one or two food items and this makes the problem more difficult to tackle. In fact, some critics of the soda ban have argued that it may not go far enough. If large sodas are banned, why not restrict sales of other unhealthy foods and drinks such as insanely large hamburgers or milkshakes (the latter are not covered by the ban due to their high milk content)? It is certainly possible the ban on large sodas won’t work – in fact, it is even possible that it won’t go into effect as the beverage industry has promised to challenge the city health board’s decision legally. Consumers may start saving or re-allocating money to simply buy more 16-ounce sodas or switch to other, non-regulated but still sugary, beverages, thus negating the impact of the sales ban. It is also possible that an alternate strategy — such as taxing sodas — may be more effective. But at a time when many of our elected officials shirk real challenges, it is refreshing that Mayor Bloomberg is not, even if his manner is rather irksome.

The mayor has not been unsuccessful with earlier public health initiatives — in 2006, the city banned the use of artificial trans-fats in restaurants and a study published earlier this year showed that city trans-fat consumption did in fact go down afterwards. The soda ban may end up being a failed experiment, but it is still an experiment worth conducting.

Contact Saheli Sadanand at saheli.sadanand@yale.edu.

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