After the soda ban, what next?

J. Justin Wilson Senior Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom
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New Yorkers have long been first to face food regulation. Last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s hand-picked bureaucrats voted to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces. The ban will go into effect March 12 of next year, barring a court order. And sure enough, there is an effort to increase direct regulation of consumer choices nationally.

Wasn’t it just a few years ago that we were debating providing consumers with information on calories? That was supposed to guilt-trip New Yorkers, and later all Americans, into the salad line with a less-heavy hand than a ban. When Bloomberg was caught noshing on less-than-healthy snacks during the city’s debate on menu labeling, Bloomberg’s office said, “The mayor is in favor of labeling and making informed choices.”

But the law didn’t cut down New Yorkers’ pant sizes. As a study by New York University researchers that compared fast food receipts from before and after the labeling law found, calorie labeling did not lead to a change in calories purchased. People took note of the calorie counts, and ate what they wanted.

Apparently that wasn’t informative enough, so the Bloomberg administration decided to ramp it up with gross-out ads in the subway system depicting soft drinks turning into liquid fat, to the chagrin of some inside the city’s health department. But trying to scare people away from certain beverages still wasn’t enough. So now, instead of applying the “making informed choices” model, Bloomberg is “forcing you to understand” — his line, not mine — by banning your big drink.

But New Yorkers are already “forced to understand.” Because of the labeling law — soon to be replicated nationwide — city diners know the calorie content of what they’re eating and drinking. The ban directly attacks consumers’ right to choose and has nothing to do with understanding.

Bloomberg knows people sometimes find the pleasure of consuming more satisfying than the bureaucrats’ view of health. After all, he issued a proclamation honoring “National Donut Day” the very same day he announced the soda ban. Sure enough, the centerpiece of National Donut Day celebrations was a box of donuts, each three feet in circumference. Beverages can get mayoral praise too: In 2009 Bloomberg proclaimed July “Good Beer Month.” And don’t even get me started on his annual appearances at the International Hot Dog Eating Contest.

New Yorkers are used to dealing with “do as I say, not as I do” and government meddling in their food choices, but the soda ban is intended to create a dangerous precedent. Just five years after New York’s Board of Health and mayor were satisfied by increasing consumer awareness, the bans have begun. And for what may be the first time since Prohibition, a class of food or beverage choice desired by restaurant consumers will be taken away by the government.

But the food police still aren’t satisfied. An influential Washington, D.C., group recently called on the government to create “strong nutritional standards” and to ensure that foods meeting them “are available in all places frequented by the public.” In other words, the group favors menu mandates.

Under such a system, the feds might decree that all hot dogs come half-sized and with a side of cauliflower, whether consumers want it or not. It might sound unlikely, but nobody outside of New York City’s health bureaucracy and mayor’s office thought that New York City would half-size the Yankee Stadium sodas even six months ago. New York City, like California, has been a model for intrusive regulation before.

The average grocery store contains over 38,000 separate items. Will future health officials under such a system set maximum sizes for each one, or give health grades based on how big the packages are?

Ultimately, we must decide who has the right to choose what we eat and drink: Is it the government, or is it individuals? According to city opinion polls, Bloomberg’s big-drink ban will pass over the objections of significant majorities of New Yorkers. National polls show similar levels of opposition among all Americans.

City bureaucrats say that doesn’t matter because they know better. For one, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley says that each New Yorker is “my patient.”

If New Yorkers want a different prescription, they’ll have to leave Gotham. How far they’ll have to go depends on how many government bureaucrats share Farley’s view.

J. Justin Wilson is the senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.