March 16, 2013
The Big Gulp Paused Health Progress In NYC
“If you know what you’re doing is harmful to people’s health, common sense says if you care, you might want to stop doing that.”—Michael Bloomberg, current mayor of New York City.
This quote comes as a result of Bloomberg’s current push to limit certain sugary drinks (particularly sodas, sweetened teas, and other high sugar beverages) in restaurants, movie theaters, corner delis, and sports arenas. NPR reported on Bloomberg’s plan, as well as the judge who foiled it, on Monday, March 11, 2013, only hours before the sugary drink ban took effect.
CNN further explains that the New York State Supreme Court judge, Milton Tingling, who made the ruling, said that the limit on large, sugary drinks is “arbitrary and capricious.” NPR quoted him stating, “The loopholes in this rule effectively defeat the stated purpose of this rule.”
Part of the discussion focuses on the role and limits of city authority because the Board of Health went around the City Council to institute the ban. Tingling questions whether the Board of Health, and ultimately Mayor Bloomberg, have the authority to do so.
City officials defend the rule by pointing to New York City’s rising obesity rate of about 24 percent adults, which is up from the 18 percent in 2002. Many studies tie sodas to health problems including obesity, blood pressure, depression, and diabetes. Mayor Bloomberg started his anti-sugary drink quest in an effort to help NYC’s citizens.
I think calling this ban arbitrary is a bit harsh. The focus is on health and trying to figure out a way to help people be healthier. Bloomberg has already compelled chain restaurants to post calorie counts as well as barred artificial trans fats in restaurant foods and prodded food manufacturers to use less salt. Clearly, there is nothing arbitrary about his actions. By definition, arbitrary means based on random choice or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something.
Based on that definition, obviously Bloomberg and the city have not been random in their health choices. They have acted to improve the health of New Yorkers.
However, arbitrary also has a legal definition. As a legal term it refers to depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law. In this case, perhaps the sugary drink law seemed arbitrary, but at least they were trying to do something about the health of the city’s citizens. Legally, the judge’s ruling implies that Bloomberg and the city should have gone another route to pass this ban into law. Okay, but sometimes more is lost in indecision and bureaucracy than in quick decision and action. Here, the judge sees the caution of bureaucracy as a virtue.
Judge Tingling also found faults in the exceptions to this rule, which included supermarkets and many convenience stores, as well as certain drinks like alcoholic drinks and lattes (or other milk-based concoctions). He stated that the regulation was “laden with exceptions based on economic and political concern.” He further explained that the issue of obesity as an epidemic is not the key issue; rather, whether the Board of Health has the jurisdiction to decide that obesity is such an issue that it could issue a cap on consumption of sugary drinks is the key issue in his ruling.
Okay, I understand that we have laws and procedures in place for the benefit of the judicial system and our citizens. I appreciate those. But I also see a very real health issue at hand. I feel like we are getting bogged down in paperwork as opposed to working to help our fellow Americans. I value freedom as much as the next person, but I also value health, probably more than the average American. That is, in itself, the problem. We should all be focused on and value health.
This standstill of law and health is not just happening in New York City; we see it happening every where. I can’t say that I don’t understand Judge Tingling’s ruling from a legal standpoint, but I think at some point we have to think about changing how the law processes work. When our health suffers because of the intricacies of the justice system, then we must work to fix that. No longer can our health take second place to bureaucracy.
I have written on the impact of soda (click here and here for those). It is very near to my heart. I just feel that we should all be looking to limit soda, and if a law must be passed to do so, then I say it’s about time. I’m not a law-mongerer who wants big government, but I am a human who wants to see others healthy. If laws will help with that, then let’s work it out.
Image Credit: Dennis Cox / Shutterstock