Will NYC’s Soda Ban Really Make Us Skinnier?

The New York City Board of Health approved on Thursday Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, a plan that’s controversial with the beverage industry and residents alike.

But aside from the debate over government involvement in our eating habits, the question of whether the initiative will actually help reduce obesity is an interesting—and also not-so-clear-cut—one. Here, a look at some interesting arguments on both sides.


The ban may change our perception of normal serving sizes.

A recent New Yorker article made the point that enormous beverage sizes (40 ounces) help make smaller but still oversized ones (20 ounces) seem sensible, which inflates our sense of what a typical serving should be. According to the piece, “If the largest soda you can order is sixteen ounces, a can of Coke may start to seem like more than enough.” Other food science research shows that we tend to eat, and be satisfied by, what’s put in front of us.

The ban could change behavior for decades to come.

Since tweens and teens—large consumers of soda, and of supersizing their soda—may be disproportionately affected by the ban, discouraging bad habits of over-consumption now may influence them to be healthier eaters for the rest of their lives, a Yale food policy expert argued in an article published on the Wharton Business School website.

We’re suckers for default bias.

One of the arguments against the beverage ban is that people still have the free will to simply order two 16-ounce drinks instead of a single 32-ounce one. But psychology research shows that people tend to go for the default option available, according to the same New Yorker article. (Numbers of organ donors are lower in countries where you have to sign up to be an organ donor, for example, than in those where you have to actively opt out of being one). If 16 ounces or less is the default option, the piece argues, most people won’t make the extra effort to drink something larger.


Many bad-for-you beverages are still allowed.

The ban only applies to a small slice of unhealthy eating behavior. It a) doesn’t apply to food, which arguably contributes a lot to obesity; b) exempts grocery stores and convenience stores, so people could still get large beverages if they really wanted to; and c) doesn’t include a lot of calorie-filled, fat-dense drinks, including those made with more than 50 percent milk (hello, Coolatas and Frapuccinos).

The ban could become the next “McLean.”

A Cornell marketing professor argued in the Wharton article that the ban is a gamble because “it’s visible, it’s controversial, and if it doesn’t overwhelmingly succeed, people will look at all subsequent public health efforts with tremendous disdain and distrust.” He compared it to the healthier burger added to McDonald’s menus in 1991. It failed to catch on, which gave fast food companies pause about introducing new “healthy” menu options for the next 10 years.


Calorie cuts are small, but they do add up.

If fast-food lovers decreased their drink size from 32 ounces to 16 ounces, they would cut 63 calories per meal, according to a study published this summer in the New England Journal of Medicine. While that’s not a lot in and of itself, it could add up for frequent patrons. One nutrition expert told HealthDay News that the proposal isn’t really that different from the vending machine bans in place at some schools.

(Photograph by Nehrams2020 via Wikimedia Commons)

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