We’ve all heard the startling statistics about obesity in America: over one third of American adults are obese (almost 36%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Obesity puts us at risk for all kinds of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. And it doesn’t afflict everyone equally: nearly 50% of blacks are obese, and lower income Americans in general are more likely to be obese than others.
In an effort to combat these problems, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted a ban on sugary sodas larger than 16 ounces sold at the city’s restaurants, food carts and movie theaters. The plan for enforcement was to disperse food inspectors and to fine businesses found in violation $200 per infraction. The ban received a mixed reaction: some public health advocates saw it as a much needed first step to encourage people to eat healthier. But the ban’s most vocal opponents were a surprising collection of minority businessmen who do not always work with conservative business people.
More surprising is the fact that The NAACP, the Hispanic Federation, the New York Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and the Korean-American Grocers Association have all opposed the ban. They correctly note that the policy, if enacted, would hurt businesses in an already struggling economy, and a disproportionate number of those businesses would be minority owned. Why? Because such a ban would cut into the profits of food carts and other small delis while leaving expensive sit-down restaurants and large corporations like 7-Eleven unaffected.
Anyone familiar with food service knows that beverages offer large profit margins. This kind of regulation would dramatically cut into small business profits. These businesses are safe for the moment, however, because a New York State Supreme Court judge recently overturned that ban, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.” The mayor has vowed to appeal.
As a cancer survivor who has struggled with weight issues all my adult life, I believe deeply in the importance of eating a healthy diet and limiting junk food. So I am sympathetic to Mayor Bloomberg’s intentions. However, I believe his tactics are wrong headed for several reasons. First, the real path to upward mobility for the poor in America lies in a combination of entrepreneurship and education. My grandfather ran a successful small business which ultimately laid the foundation for each subsequent generation in our family to exceed the accomplishments of the previous one. Second, the people that will be hurt by the soda ban will not be the manufacturers of Coke or Pepsi. They will be the fathers that are working twelve and fourteen hour days so that their children can go to college.
What did the judge mean when he called the ban arbitrary? Besides singling out restaurants, movie theaters and street carts for regulation (sit-down restaurants can still offer refills, so they are not affected), the ban does not affect diet sodas, fruit-based juice drinks, dairy-based drinks such as milkshakes, or alcoholic beverages. The ban would unintentionally encourage the consumption of a 40 ounce milkshake over a 20 ounce Coke. And while diet soda may not have any calories, there is absolutely no evidence that it is any healthier than its sugary alternative. For example, France’s National Institute of Health recently found that drinkers of diet soda were at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who drank regular soda. (The study found that consuming just one diet soda per week increased one’s chances of developing Type 2 diabetes by 33%.)
At the heart of the matter is the appropriate role of government in trying to influence people’s dietary choices. For decades, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, better known as food stamps) has been trying to help the poorest Americans eat healthier. But as I have written, there is no evidence whatsoever that food stamps improve the nutrition of their recipients.
Lower income Americans are much more likely to be obese for many complicated reasons. Some have simply grown up with poor eating habits, but there are many other factors arguably beyond their control. Poverty advocates note the lack of full service grocery stores in some neighborhoods, the limited participation in exercise and other physical activity, and the lack of understanding concerning the danger of eating traditional ethnic diets - all contribute pandemic health problems. I am all for addressing these issues.
But almost completely overlooked are the obvious answers:1. Churches and community groups have to teach more about health and nutrition. 2. The next best way to improve the health of poorer Americans is to enable them to become more prosperous (wealthier Americans can afford to make wiser nutritional choices). If Bloomberg and others promoted small business growth in urban areas and partnered with churches on nutritional education, more great choices would be made for less government money (taxes).
Misguided regulations like Bloomberg’s soda ban undermine personal freedom and create structures that siphon off resources, disproportionately from the least affluent Americans. Let’s put government on a diet! Sometimes, less is more!
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.