Soda Ban Will Fail and Jeopardize Future Public Health Efforts
Better ideas in the future will be ignored if New York sets a failing precedent for public health initiatives
June 1, 2012
We've dedicated our research careers to helping people eat better, contributing to Smarter School Lunchrooms, 100-calorie packs, and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. We fear that this ban on large soft drinks will be a huge setback to fighting obesity for two reasons: 1) unless it succeeds, it will poison the water for better solutions, and 2) it won't succeed.
First, consider the McLean Effect. McDonald's launches the visible and controversial low-calorie hamburger. It failed, becoming a byword for restaurants for the next 15 years. No one would dare introduce low-calorie fast-food offerings because "Look what happened to the McLean."
Banning larger sizes is a visible and controversial idea. If it fails, no one will trust that the next big—and perhaps better—idea will work because "Look what happened in New York City." It poisons the water for ideas that may have more potential.
Second, 150 years of research in food economics tells us, "People get what they want." Someone who buys a 32-ounce soft drink wants a 32-ounce soft drink and will find a way to work around the ban. They'll go to a place that offers fountain refills, or they'll buy two. If they don't have much money, they might cut back on fruits or vegetables or a bit of their family meal budget.
Who buys large soft drinks? It's not just the individuals who may have some disregard for their weight. It may also be the construction worker who buys a single drink and nurses it all day. It may be the family of three who decide to split a single drink to save money. Soft drinks are bought by one third of the poorest 2 million New Yorkers but only one sixth of the richest 1 million—those who prefer to sip their fruit smoothies and lattes without regard for the burden on the less affluent soda drinkers.
There is a better way. Soft drink companies and restaurants make money by selling beverages—not sugar. By working with these companies, New York City could discover new ways to better promote lower-calorie options—while consumers deride bans, they love promotions. Encouraging greater sales of healthier beverages—using a carrot instead of a stick—would be welcomed by struggling retailers and manufacturers alike.
When all sides win, no one resists. It's the difference between a heroic success and epic failure.