America’s image of New Yorkers combines swagger, style and an unwillingness to get pushed around. Humphrey Bogart once warned a Nazi commander in “Casablanca” that “there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.” Seventy years ago, movie audiences would have laughed in appreciation of the city’s toughness.
Today, however, Rick Blaine would hardly recognize the place. Mayor Michael Bloomberg hit the panic button over soft drinks this week, proposing a citywide ban on any serving of sugary-sweet soda more than 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters and street carts. Bloomberg claims that he needs to have the cops throw themselves between consumers and liquid refreshment to save citizens from themselves and prevent obesity. Big Gulp, meet Big Brother.
This is just the latest intervention staged by Hizzoner. His past decrees banned smoking, not just indoors in places of business, but also outside of businesses and in parks. Bloomberg also banned restaurants from cooking with artificial trans fats. In those cases, he took a lot of criticism as being a health hysteric and a food nanny, but at least an argument existed that consumer choice might have been irrelevant. Restaurants don’t usually advertise all of their ingredients on the menu, for instance, and few people get asked permission before someone lights a cigarette in the doorway of an establishment.
In this case, though, no such argument exists. People purchase the volume of beverage they desire, and in almost every case, plenty of choice exists for smaller quantities. The outcome of barring the sale of anything larger than 16 ounces of Coca-Cola or Pepsi at the ballpark will be that more containers will get thrown out as people just buy more units, and that waste will have to be disposed of later. Consumers will pay more and have more inconvenience in purchasing what they want to drink, and will still end up drinking the same amount anyway.
The new restrictions make little sense for most other venues. Fast-food restaurants have customer-accessible fountains in most cases for in-store dining. Few people buy the large size, and many of these restaurants no longer bother with size at all for those sales, sticking with one standard size. Will Bloomberg start regulating how many refills each customer gets, too? For that matter, many traditional restaurants offer free refills on soft drinks, too. If Bloomberg caps those, what happens when customers just buy another soft-drink order? Will the restaurant be forced to stop serving root beer far more quickly than they stop serving beer?
Nor do the drink categories make sense, either. Bloomberg’s order won’t apply to alcoholic beverages, even though many of those are loaded with calories, especially beers and ales, or to dairy-based drinks. As Reason’s Jacob Sullum points out, that means that while New Yorkers will no longer be able to ingest 240 calories drinking a 20-ounce Coke, they will still have no trouble buying a 24-ounce, 520-calorie double-chocolatey frappucino at Starbucks, or a 20-ounce, 800-calorie milkshake.
Now, some of those choices may be better than others, although it’s hard to argue that the dietary value of milk justifies ingesting an 800-calorie drink as opposed to the 240-calorie cola. But more to the point, that’s a decision that free people should be able to make on their own. New Yorkers shouldn’t have to ask Bloomberg, “Mayor, may I?” when selecting an otherwise-legal and nonlethal beverage.
Bloomberg justifies his nanny-state interventions by pointing to the social costs of obesity, but there is no direct causal link between obesity and 20-ounce sodas with sugar in them, and neither would it be anyone’s business at all except for the increasing government control and subsidies for health care. Bloomberg’s insistence on dictating consumer choices has a more direct connection to an assumption that government should control our access to health care than obesity has to a couple of Big Gulps.
Perhaps it’s time for New Yorkers to put their mayor on a power diet, and to wise up about the real trade-offs between expanding safety-net programs and personal choice. Soft drinks won’t be the last of the usual suspects that Mayor May I will round up in his crusade to dictate his choices and eliminate everyone else’s.
On one hand I underscore his efforts however also know that if we let the government dictate these elements of free choice, what would be next?