Education, not ban, key to obesity curb

Does the government have any business in your soft drink cup?

It may by next March in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading a charge against supersized soft drinks ... at least some of them.

In trying to make New Yorkers -- and, we suppose, tourists -- more fit, Bloomberg is advocating a ban on sugary drinks served in cups that hold more than 16 ounces. That doesn't mean you can't drink more than 16 ounces of Coke or Pepsi with your double cheeseburger or meat lover's pizza. It just means you'd have to order more than one drink to go with it.

And, as with many laws aimed at restricting what is seen by a government entity as self-destructive behavior, there will be plenty of ways around it for those who demand that their sugar-packed beverages be served in bucket-sized vessels.

The objective of the pending law is, ostensibly at least, to combat a growing problem in New York and, for that matter, the rest of America -- its growing waistline. Bloomberg's ban, which is expected to easily pass the city's Board of Health, whose membership is appointed by the mayor, would prevent a drink from being served in containers larger than 16 ounces if the drink is sweetened, contains more than 3 calories per ounce and is served in a restaurant, deli, sports arena or movie theater. Beverages like Coke, Pepsi, Sprite and others usually run 12-12.5 calories per ounce with 3.25-3.5 grams of sugar per ounce. You can order more than one drink, but to get 32 ounces of Coke at a sitting, you'd have to get two cups.

"You tend to eat all of the food in the container," Bloomberg explained. "If it's bigger, you eat more. If somebody put a smaller glass or plate or bowl in front of you, you would eat less."

Fancying New York a trendsetter, city health officials there have suggested passage of the law will result in other U.S. cities adopting similar ordinances.

If you assume that Bloomberg's statement is true and government has the power to influence cup size, you have to wonder about the exceptions to the law. There are many.

It makes sense that diet drinks, which are usually calorie- and sugar-free, would not be subject to the limit. But the law will also exempt any drinks that are at least 70 percent juice and those that are at least half milk or milk substitute. Sugar-laced belly-washers sold at convenience stores will continue to be slurped since they're regulated as grocery stores and aren't subject to the size ban. Supermarkets are not covered by the ban. And New York officials said you'll still be able to load up on calories and sugar in drinks such as frappuccinos at coffee shops.

Those are loopholes big enough to drive a soft drink delivery truck through.

Obesity is a problem, and it may well be that its health costs run up an annual bill of $4 billion in the City That Never Sleeps. We doubt, however, that restricting the ways a select group of businesses sell their soft drinks will significantly impact anything other than the freedom of commerce. Plus those big double cheesburgers, extra-large fries, tubs of buttered popcorn, convenience store slurpies and venti fraps will continue to roll out unimpeded.

What consumers need more than anything else is information. Rather than banning the way a food or drink item is sold, educating consumers about what's in it empowers them to make their own decisions, rather than feel that the government has taken something away.

If someone is determined to drink a 32-ounce sweetened beverage, he or she will, regardless of what a government decrees. A better approach is to give consumers the information they need to think before they drink.