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.