Is Big Government Better Than Big Gulp?

The problem isn't just sodas, it's that this country, culturally, has a big problem with the worship of all things big.

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In this May 31, 2012, photo, a man leaves a 7-Eleven store with a Double Gulp drink in New York.
A man leaves a 7-Eleven store with a Double Gulp drink in New York, May 31, 2012.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's imperiled ban on selling sugary sodas bigger than 16 ounces is a great idea in theory. It would just have been better if he didn't try to tell concessioners and consumers where the line is—even though the line between common sense and courting obesity was crossed a long time ago.

Bloomberg's ban, which was struck down by a court this week (he says he will appeal) would have barred the sale of obscenely-sized sugary beverage. This is a smart move in terms of health conditions—not only do the drinks contain way too many calories, but there is evidence that high-sugar beverages in particular contribute to weight gain and obesity—that are not just uncomfortable and even dangerous for the individual, but very expensive for the community, which has to subsidize the healthcare costs for the extremely overweight.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

But is Big Government better than the Big Gulp? Yes, government sometimes must protect people from themselves, but is the drink size limit going too far? The ban seems especially silly when one considers that it was limited to a single jurisdiction. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said it best when she joked at Washington's Gridiron Dinner Saturday night that you can now get into more trouble with 18 ounces of sugared soda in New York than with 18 ounces of marijuana out West. After all, what's to prevent people from loading their trunks with massive sodas in New Jersey and just driving over the state border with them?

Certain regulations that impede personal choice makes sense, but only when they directly affect the health and safety of people around them. Banning smoking in enclosed places may seem (to smokers) like an infringement on their right to poison themselves (and they should have that right). But they don't have the right to poison those around them with second hand smoke.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Sale of Large Sugary Drinks Be Prohibited?]

It would be great if sellers got away from the idea that more is always better, that bigger is always a better bargain, and that a better cash price trumps better health. It's irritating to go to stores and cafes and find there are absolutely no sensibly-sized choices—and not just for beverages. Go into a breakfast bakery, and you'll find it hard to buy a roll sized for you alone—but you can buy one sized for you and the Washington Redskins. True, you don't have to finish it, but most of us don't have that discipline. Surely, that's part of the reason obesity is so prevalent in this country.

Bloomberg is right in saying that if consumers can't buy a soda bigger than 16 ounces, they are free to buy two and drink both. And he is right in assuming a good portion of people won't buy two portions. But the problem isn't just sodas, it's that this country, culturally, has a big problem with the worship of all things big. Big government, however, isn't necessarily the answer.

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