July 2012
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Big Gulp? I'll drink to that!

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Soda has no nutritional value. The substance, hilariously described in one radio ad that pimped a car with larger cupholders as “bubbling … tooth-rot,” has many nutritional deficits. It should not be the only option in school vending machines that serve highly captive audiences.

I think most of us can agree on these points, and that soda is one of those things we should enjoy “in moderation.” The honest among us can probably also agree that, for many palates, soda is delicious.

But soda, long the bane of public-health scolds, apparently is now also a cup of contention for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and even our guv, John Hickenlooper. To varying degrees, these two do not think that Americans and Coloradans can be trusted to decide for themselves how much soda to drink, or to deal with the possible consequences of drinking too much.

Bloomberg’s genius idea was to propose banning the sale of sodas in containers larger than 16 ounces at certain venues. There was nothing in his proposal that would have precluded people from buying two 16-ouncers, or more, or from buying sodas from multiple vendors. The idea was to “make them think” about how much fizzy drink they were consuming. Never mind that it’s not New York’s job to think for individuals, and nobody asked for New York’s help with that — there are fat people among us! Fat people are gross, er, I mean, they are a gross burden on society, especially when it comes to health-care costs! We gotta do something!

Hick didn’t necessarily endorse a largesoda ban, but he was quick to at least chase after the passing bandwagon, telling state media that we have to look at all options to preserve people’s health. Apparently, the egregious nannyism of Bloomberg’s proposal did not faze our governor. Or at least, he sees the proposal as an acceptable level of governmental interference in personal choices.

It’s enough to make a girl want to head somewhere for a “sip-in” protest.

Bloomberg is not the first to get in a tizzy about the sizes of our fizzy. An Associated Press piece in 2011 purported to look at the history of weight loss. It read more like a history of our obsession with the absurd, and offered the head-bang-onto-desk conclusion that there are loads of diets that “work”; we just have to try harder.

But I digress. The article quoted the incoming president of something called “The Obesity Society,” which I am sure is a totally objective source with no vested interest in pills, diets or policies that punish fat people. The man, Patrick O’Niell, offered this rhetorical question:

“Should it be socially desirable to walk down the street with a 30-ounce Big Gulp?”

Well, Patrick, I don’t know. Pondering whether the law-abiding conduct of a stranger who is minding his own business is “desirable” isn’t really on my list of things to do. I’ve got hobbies, an’ all. My question is whether it is socially desirable that control freaks feel the need to monitor the behavior of others. It sounds kinda pathological to me.

Of course, a stupid policy is nothing without obligatory surveys, and Bloomberg’s proposal has resulted in one showing that 70 percent of 977 respondents say the ban amounts to government overreach, even though a majority of respondents also said they would change their own soda-consumption habits.

The expert conclusion? That the results “show a disconnect among Americans about the link between what they consume and the larger health impact,” per Reuters, summarizing nutrition professor Marion Nestle. Her exact quote is that the public doesn’t understand “that what we eat is already governed by government policy” — notice no drawing of a distinction between what we eat and how much, which is what Bloomberg’s ban would do — “and that larger soft drinks have more calories.”

Excuse me, learned professor? I believe even my cat knows that the larger the portion of anything, the more calories it is going to have. We’re none of us that stupid.

The Reuters piece also irritatingly tries to suggest public opposition to the soda-sale ban is just as wrongheaded as initial opposition to smoking bans. Newsflash: Smoking is a behavior; fat is not. And soda, while not healthful, is a far cry from a cigarette.

Apart from the obvious problems and absurdities of banning the sale of certain-sized drinks, Bloomberg’s proposal presupposes, not only that excess weight is automatically and universally unhealthy, but that:

1. Soda is a primary culprit.

2. Soda’s only negative effect is the potential for excess weight.

3. Intervening in soda consumption is going to meaningfully change the nation’s waistline. The best way to address our nation’s weight problem is to understand that the problem is largely sheer ignorance — blended in with puritanical smugness — about large bodies. You can be fat and metabolically healthy, with normal blood pressure, normal blood sugar and normal cholesterol readings. You can be thin and in very poor health. Weight is not a lifestyle choice. Lifestyle can have bearing on weight, but weight is as heritable as height. Soda is a junk beverage (see above), and while excess sugar consumption can contribute to weight gain, weight is not purely a matter of calories in - calories out. As far as calories and low nutritional content go, there is plenty of other food and drink on the list.

Banning the sale of large sodas sounds ridiculous precisely because it is. We need to nip this sort of overreach in the bud, before the Nanny State tires of the carrot and goes for a bigger stick than Bloomberg has.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose, Colo.


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