Just A Spoonful of Sugar

June 15, 2012

The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, recently drew a lot of criticism for announcing a plan to ban the sale on sugary drinks in sizes larger than sixteen ounces. Some people have criticized this by calling the plan part of a "nanny state", which is sort of like Big Brother, but in a long dress and a hat with fake cherries on it.

People have also said that the decision to purchase and drink a gallon of sugar-saturated water should be a matter of personal responsibility. But the ban is an attempt to address the growing obesity problem, and I’m not sure it’s such a bad idea. First of all I’m not sure when nannies became a bad thing. Nannies aren’t parents, which may actually be an advantage. Allan Sherman, who you probably know as the guy who sang "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, here I am at Camp Granada" says that he got fat because his mother told him "Clean your plate. There are children starving in Europe." So he cleaned his plate seven or eight times a day, and he admits that all that happened was he got fat and children in Europe went on starving, probably because Allan Sherman was eating all their food. It’s true that his mother wanted him to eat so he’d grow and be healthy, but a nanny might have been smart enough to stop him at his third plate. Then there’s the matter of personal responsibility.

I happen to be in favor of personal responsibility. Each of us learning to take responsibility for our own actions is a great thing, especially since part of that is keeping in mind how our actions affect others. But why is the pressure of individual responsibility always put on the consumer? Why is it always, "Don’t drink all of that 78-ounce soda even if that’s what they gave you at the drive-thru window" or "Don’t breathe in the asbestos we put in your building" or "Don’t drink or bathe in or go anywhere near your tap water if you live near a chemical processing plant"? How about a little corporate responsibility for a change? And smaller drink cups mean less plastic and a reduced volume of soft drinks being sold, which would keep costs down, so, theoretically, everybody wins. Everybody, that is, except for the plastic and soft drink companies, but I think even the plastic companies should agree that the world could use less plastic. And in the United States soft drinks are mostly made with corn syrup, not cane sugar. I think the science is still out on whether corn syrup is just as healthy as sugar, but sugar isn’t exactly healthy to begin with, and I’m suspicious of the corn syrup companies running commercials that tell us our bodies can’t tell the difference between corn syrup and cane sugar. Here’s a fun fact: our bodies can’t tell the difference between phosphorous and arsenic either. That doesn’t make arsenic good for us. And shouldn’t all that corn be going to make ethanol anyway?

To get back to personal responsibility, though, it also helps sometimes to have some help, some guidelines to remind people when to be responsible. An example psychologists have used is that in studies when people are given a soup bowl that continually fills from the bottom most people will keep eating long after they’re full. It’s a finding that is used to support the large drink ban, and it also raises a serious question: where can I get one of those bowls, and do they come with clam chowder? Here’s what I think is a better example of guidelines helping people be responsible: every day when I go to work I cross the street at a clearly marked crosswalk. It tells pedestrians like me "This is where you should cross the street", and it tells drivers "You have to stop for pedestrians here. Anywhere else feel free to run ’em over!" How about stop signs? Strictly speaking no one’s forced to stop at a stop sign. The sign is just there to remind people that there’s a good reason they shouldn’t drive through the intersection at full speed, and even though there may not be consequences for ignoring a stop sign, stopping is the responsible thing to do. I also get the argument that people feel it’s intrusive, and I’m sure there will be those who rebel against the ban, even if it really does turn out to be effective. I used to know a guy who stopped wearing a seat belt when it became a law that you had to wear a seat belt while driving. I would say this is like cutting off his nose to spite his face, but technically it’s more like playing Russian roulette to spite someone else’s face. And the ban really only affects the size of the drink you can purchase. It doesn’t affect how many drinks you can buy. Why is it a problem for somebody who’s really that thirsty to buy ten or twelve sixteen ounce sodas? Modern cars are designed with a minimum of a hundred and seventeen cup holders anyway, and think of all the flavor options you’d have. It also doesn’t affect the content, which I’m sure is good news for those of us who like a nice tall glass of syrup in the mornings. And those who really find the ban so onerous should keep in mind that sooner or later Bloomberg is going to open his umbrella and fly away over the chimney tops of Manhattan. His replacement may lift the ban, but even if it’s not lifted industries are very good at adapting. Back when companies started labeling certain foods as "low fat" government regulations were put in place that defined what could be called "low fat". So the companies adapted and started labeling foods that didn’t meet the standard "lower fat", "less fat", "reduced fat", and "whole wheat fat". And the soft drink industry will adapt. For one thing we’ll start seeing drink machines that dispense clam chowder.

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