Freedom is under attack! In the largest city of our giant country—the liberty to drink over 16 ounces of sugar syrup is in the crosshairs of the gubmint. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed (and will most likely implement) the nation’s first prohibition on over-sized soda at public venues.
Now the AstroTurf outrage over this alleged ban (in reality, a size reduction) is bubbling up! This week a rally brimming with dozens of soda jerks calling themselves the Million Big Gulp March, shook their high-fructose fists at the mayor. The polling reveals a polarizing 50/50 split in support/opposition to the ordinance. Throw in a couple of commercials by the beverage industry saying they’re offering more fewer-calorie choices—and you have pandemonium!
In 1908, New York City was also the first in the country to have an ordinance against public smoking. Sure it only applied to women and was quickly thrown out, but still, a hundred years later eliminating smoking tobacco just about everywhere has cut down American smokers to only 20 percent of adults (most of whom live in West Virginia). When compared to the 45 percent who smoked cigarettes in the 1950s—it’s a success. Was it a knock to the liberties of smokers? Yes. Do we care? Nope.
Because we are not islands and we live in what is referred to as civilization, therefore laws for the greater good while inconveniencing a couple of people are part of the deal. We do this with traffic: Just because stopping for 90 seconds will make some individuals late doesn’t mean we should ditch all stop lights. So unless you’re cutting your own firewood and living off the grid in a Ted Kaczynski-style cabin somewhere—what you do more than likely affects the rest of us. And in the case of smoking cigarettes—fumigates the rest of us. (Full disclosure: I’m an ex-smoker and now I’m unapologetically militant. A cliché I know. Cough. Gag.)
“It’s not the role of government to save us from ourselves,” soda pop libertarians will say. That’s just not true. The government prohibits all kinds of things to “save us from ourselves”: lead paint, toxic children’s toys, asbestos, open sewers, terrorists, Occupy protesters, and swear words without a subscription.
In 1890s New York City, carbolic acid, a nasty neurotoxin with the ability to melt the skin off your face was—inexplicably—the go-to means of suicide in Lower Manhattan. It was easily available over-the-counter at drugstores, “a dime’s worth could kill several people” and it was the most gruesome death imaginable. The city’s coroner at the time, a George P. LeBrun, reported 238 suicides in 1899 from carbolic acid. The following year the city’s health department (the same department that will more than likely ban giant sodas at New York movie theaters) made the organic compound frequently used as paint stripper require a doctor’s certificate for purchase. According to LeBrun’s autobiography, the following year the deaths by drinking carbolic acid plummeted to only a “handful of suicides.”
Did it eradicate suicide? Of course not. But was it sensible policy that arguably eased some suffering? Yes. Did it make us “less free?” Hardly.
And when it comes to obesity—we are the fattest generation of one of the fattest countries in the world. If obesity were a virus we’d have fundraisers and celebrity spokespeople drumming up panic. We’d have marches and vigils and Dateline specials. “Will you or your loved ones be next?!” We’d have a death toll counter on CNN. “Fifteen more victims claimed today!” But since it’s just our consuming too much (way too much) and economic forces encourage consuming too much (way too much) we waddle along not half as alarmed as we should be.
Here’s the thing with the obesity epidemic: Doing nothing is not fixing the problem.
Is a soda size ban a cure-all? No. Is it the best policy ever introduced? No. Will it make us all thinner? No. But it is a good start. Or really, a start.