Thursday, May 31, 2012

How dare Mayor Mike decide that NY-ers will have to guzzle their liquid sugar in mere 16-oz. gulps?


"Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States public health officials are wringing their hands, saying, 'Oh, this is terrible!' New York City is not about wringing your hands. It's about doing something. I think that's what the public wants the mayor to do."
-- NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, in a NYT interview yesterday

by Ken

Okay, I chuckled at the cartoon too. It's kind of cute. It's all the kind of reflexive reaction -- "unencumbered by the thought process," in the familiar Car Talk phrase -- that plagues public discourse.

My first inclination was to say something like "that increasingly plagues public discourse," and I do think this has become a keener problem over the last several decades of right-wing propaganda manipulation. (I don't believe that right-wingers have always been this implacably hostile to the thought process, but they clearly are now, no doubt because it makes their pronouncements and actions look imbecilic and thuggish.) But I've also been working my way gradually through NPR media maven Brooke Gladstone's remarkable "graphic not-a-novel" The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, and I imagine that Brooke would by now have jumped in to point out how utterly characteristic it is historically for public discourse to be unencumbered by the thought process.

Eventually I'll have to figure out how to write about The Influencing Machine, which is chock full of crucial illuminating information and perspective about the relationship between the citizenry and our media, but for now I'm just going to reference one body of information that I'm embarrassed to say I truly wasn't familiar with.

First, we should establish exactly what it is that Mayor Bloomberg has proposed -- and apparently will get, since the way his people analyze the rule-making process involved, they seem quite persuaded that the proposal doesn't need outsiders' approval -- unlike, say, the proposal supported by the mayor for a tax on sodas, which died a quiet death in the NYS legislature. As NYT reporter Michael Grynbaum notes (in the NYT article that includes the interview with Mayor Mike from which I've quoted above):
Mayoral aides say they are confident that they have the legal authority to restrict soda sales, based on the city’s jurisdiction over local eating establishments, the same oversight that allows for the health department’s letter-grade cleanliness rating system for restaurants.

The mayor's people are confident that all they need in the way of nonmayoral approval is a thumbs-up from the city's Board of Health, which "is considered likely," says reporter Grynbaum, "because the members are all appointed by him, and the board's chairman is the city's health commissioner, who joined the mayor in supporting the measure on Wednesday."
Now, as to what exactly the mayor is proposing, here's Grynbaum's summary:
New York City plans to enact a far-reaching ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts, in the most ambitious effort yet by the Bloomberg administration to combat rising obesity.

The proposed ban would affect virtually the entire menu of popular sugary drinks found in delis, fast-food franchises and even sports arenas, from energy drinks to pre-sweetened iced teas. The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces -- about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle -- would be prohibited under the first-in-the-nation plan, which could take effect as soon as next March.

The measure would not apply to diet sodas, fruit juices, dairy-based drinks like milkshakes, or alcoholic beverages; it would not extend to beverages sold in grocery or convenience stores. . . .

The ban would not apply to drinks with fewer than 25 calories per 8-ounce serving, like zero-calorie Vitamin Waters and unsweetened iced teas, as well as diet sodas.

Restaurants, delis, movie theater and ballpark concessions would be affected, because they are regulated by the health department. Carts on sidewalks and in Central Park would also be included, but not vending machines or newsstands that serve only a smattering of fresh food items.

At fast-food chains, where sodas are often dispersed at self-serve fountains, restaurants would be required to hand out cup sizes of 16 ounces or less, regardless of whether a customer opts for a diet drink. But free refills -- and additional drink purchases -- would be allowed.

Corner stores and bodegas would be affected if they are defined by the city as "food service establishments." Those stores can most easily be identified by the health department letter grades they are required to display in their windows.

Shocking, isn't it? Instead of happily guzzling on their 48-oz. or 64-oz. containers, consumers of liquid-sugar products are going to be required to keep going back to the counter for additional 16-oz. fixes of their poison!
I suppose many people's knee-jerk reaction wil be like that of our cartoonist above. How dare the dagnab gummint interfere with my God-given right to pour liquid sugar down my gullet?

Sure enough, the expectable suspects are already being heard from.
A spokesman for the New York City Beverage Association, an arm of the soda industry's national trade group, criticized the city's proposal on Wednesday. The industry has clashed repeatedly with the city's health department, saying it has unfairly singled out soda; industry groups have bought subway advertisements promoting their cause.

"The New York City health department's unhealthy obsession with attacking soft drinks is again pushing them over the top," the industry spokesman, Stefan Friedman, said. "It's time for serious health professionals to move on and seek solutions that are going to actually curb obesity. These zealous proposals just distract from the hard work that needs to be done on this front."

Of course it's not the liquid-sugar merchants' responsibility to do any of that "hard work that needs to be done on this front." I suppose we should be grateful that they're not saying, "Obesity problem? What obesity problem?" You know, in the grand tradition of the tobacco industry (and its government-regulation-hating allies in the Big Money elites), which spent decades brazenly denying that there was any demonstrable link between their beloved products and adverse health results. (Eventually we found out that they weren't merely being stupid or disingenuous, they were flat-out lying, because their own research was already demonstrating unquestionable links.)

Of course the beverage industry is in an easier position than the tobacco people were, in that their liquid-sugar products are merely one source of the fuel feeding the obesity epidemic. Never mind that horrific numbers that show what a large -- and nutritionally void -- component of that epidemic their products are. They are unquestionably right that they're not unique contributors to this national nightmare. (And if you don't think it's a national nightmare, have you looked around lately and noted the, er, shape of your fellow Americans?)

The mayor insists, by the way, that he's not taking anything away from anyone.
"Your argument, I guess, could be that it's a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32 ounce,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a sarcastic tone. “I don’t think you can make the case that we’re taking things away."

Now you have to think that that "sarcastic tone" isn't really isn't necessary and really doesn't help the cause, just as the people responsible for administering those restaurant-cleanliness letter grades really do themselves no favor by denying indignantly that there could be any problems with the administration of the new system, when it seems pretty clear that there are lots of problems. The unwillingness to acknowledge -- and correct -- those problems only detracts from the considerable success and widespread acceptance of the restaurant-cleanliness rating system.

It seems clear to me that this is an area in which Mayor Mike has most successfully distinguished himself from the garden-variety pol who lives in terror of offending entrenched commercial interests. Here's Michael Grynbaum again:
Mr. Bloomberg has made public health one of the top priorities of his lengthy tenure, and has championed a series of aggressive regulations, including bans on smoking in restaurants and parks, a prohibition against artificial trans fat in restaurant food and a requirement for health inspection grades to be posted in restaurant windows.

The measures have led to occasional derision of the mayor as Nanny Bloomberg, by those who view the restrictions as infringements on personal freedom. But many of the measures adopted in New York have become models for other cities, including restrictions on smoking and trans fats, as well as the use of graphic advertising to combat smoking and soda consumption, and the demand that chain restaurants post calorie contents next to prices.


"Nanny state" is the common phrase. How dare the government try to protect people from themselves? There are, after all, people who still insist that people who want to smoke shouldn't have their right to smoke interfered with. Even here, though, you don't find that many people as outraged as the tobacco industry and its death-merchant apologists once were about the government's imposition of health warnings on cigarette packages and limited restrictions on cigarette sales. I think it's worth remembering the extent to which those innovations were once denounced as an unjustifiable assault on Americans' freedom.

Personally, it still outrages me that the people who made fortunes knowingly selling crippling disease ande death to their customers were never properly held to account for what they were: murderers. In the same way that it outrages me that that broad coalition of right-wing destroyers will never be held to account for their decades of lying obstruction of attempts to reverse the human assault on our one and only planet.

Which brings me to the case that stopped me cold in Brooke Gladstone's book: a moment when our government took it upon itself, as a matter of rigidly and ruthlessly enforced policy, to deny unequivocally, and to the maximum of its ability, what would turn out to be one of the momentous truths of the 20th or any other century in human experience. It's an episode in U.S. history that every schoolchild should know about, to appreciate the scale on which our government is capable of lying.

It's too big a subject to simply tack onto this post, so I'm going to come back to it tomorrow, simply noting for now that if we as a society weren't so broadly unencumbered by the thought process, knowledge of this event would help us understand all sorts of subsequent disasters that have happened in part because we had no opportunity to learn the deadly peril of government lying about scientific realities, and we might have some appreciation for Mayor Mike's attempts to acknowledge some such realities and attempt corrective action.

I honestly don't know how I feel about the mayor's plan. But I know I feel a lot closer to what he's trying to do than I do to the attitude of the people who will reflexively respond, "How dare he?" Those people scare me.

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