Assault on Soda Leaves a Bad Taste

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decided that everyone else should drink less soda.

The city has launched a multi-pronged effort to get New Yorkers, especially low-income New Yorkers, to drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages. The mayor, who is the tenth richest person in the country according to Forbes, initially suggested using economic pressure to change New Yorkers’ buying habits by imposing a statewide tax on sugar-saturated beverages. The proposal failed. Now Bloomberg is seeking federal permission to bar New York City residents from using food stamps to purchase soda. The ban would affect 1.7 million people, around 20 percent of the city’s population.

To reach the other 80 percent, the city’s health department has launched an aggressive media campaign including YouTube videos and posters on subway trains. One of the videos shows a man drinking a glass of fat and concludes with the message, “Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year. Don’t drink yourself FAT.”

Pay attention to that weasily-worded phrase, “can make you 10 pounds fatter.” According to nutritionists, it’s not at all clear that drinking a can of soda a day would cause you, or me, to gain 10 pounds over the course of a year. “As we get into this exacting science, the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd,” Cathy Nonas, the chief nutritionist for New York City’s health department, wrote in a memorandum to her colleagues on Aug. 20, 2009.

Of course drinking soda can potentially make someone 10 pounds heavier. Life is unpredictable; anything can happen. Nonas decided this was enough to assuage her conscience. She recently told The New York Times she was satisfied with the video’s final message that “Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year.” She said, “It’s totally supportable to say ‘can.’”

Instead of beginning with facts and research, New York City started with the conclusion it wanted to support and then found and bent the facts to fit. The entire strategy of the media campaign rested on using fear and disgust to prompt people to change their behavior. Dr. Thomas A. Farley, the city’s health commissioner, wrote in an e-mail, “I think what people fear is getting fat.” So he focused the ad campaign around the message that drinking soda leads to weight gain, without regard to whether weight gain really is the primary problem associated with excess sugar consumption.

For research to be useful to society, it needs to be independent. Facts must not be interpreted through the lens of a predetermined conclusion. I have made that point here in connection with the BP oil spill, clinical drug trials and climate change.

Once people have the relevant facts, it is their responsibility, and their right, to decide how to apply those facts to their own actions. I am hardly a paragon of dietary virtue, but because I know about the amount of sugar that goes into regular sodas, I opt for diet versions. I like to save my empty calories for something meaningful to me, namely chocolate or its key derivative, the chocolate chip cookie. You might prefer to skip the chocolate and indulge in a regular Coke or Pepsi.

If New York City wants to educate residents about the risks of drinking soda, it ought to do so without scaremongering, and without economic coercion, for that matter. The Bloomberg administration’s attempt to single out soft drinks as a health threat akin to tobacco is based on junk science. It leaves a bad aftertaste.

About Larry M. Elkin 534 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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