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Freedom Soda: New York's Ban On Big Sodas Hits Us Where We're Human

Under New York Mayor Bloomberg's proposed big soda ban, soda sizes at the movies and elsewhere would have to shrink, and so would the fun, some people say.
Under New York Mayor Bloomberg's proposed big soda ban, soda sizes at the movies and elsewhere would have to shrink, and so would the fun, some people say.

UPDATE: 11:37 a.m. As expected, the New York Board of Health passed a rule banning sugary drinks like soda in sizes 16 oz. or larger at restaurants, concession stands and other eateries in an effort to combat obesity today. The ban is expected to take effect in March, but according to the Wall Street Journal, opponents are already considering a legal challenge to prevent that. It passed 8-0.

Both sides have been pouring money into ad campaigns, slinging mud and twisting words. But this is not the Presidential election, it's the battle for soda.

Today, a panel in New York City is expected to approve the ban of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages in containers larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, street carts and stadiums.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is known for his far-reaching policies when it comes to public health. He is, after all, responsible for snuffing out New Yorkers' cigarettes. But this soda restriction proposal seemed to be one step too far for many people.

Opinions have been flying all summer, both on the street and in highbrow places like The Atlantic, the New Yorker and the New York Times. In fact, a recent New York Times poll shows 60 percent of New Yorkers oppose the ban, even though 51 percent reported drinking soda less than once a week or never.

So why all the vitriol over soda?

It turns out the emotional response to the issue runs deeper than our physical attachment to giant fizzy drinks.

"Humans are unique in the meaning they attach to food," Craig Hadley, professor of anthropology at Emory University and the President of the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition tells The Salt.

According to Hadley, our identities are wrapped up in our food choices. "We see this when we associate certain ethnic groups with certain foods, athletes with specific diets, or vegetarians with political ideologies." (Think Michael Phelps and his Olympic diet, or the vegan musician Moby and his anti-factory farming agenda.)

Still, though, this push for the freedom to drink soda feels counter intuitive in this age of organic farming, Michelle Obama and Community Supported Agriculture. Hadley thinks soda hits a nerve because it's a choice that's being taken away.

"Studies from experimental economics and social psychology over and over demonstrate that people are more sensitive to a loss than a gain," he says.

Of course, some would argue that the government restricts choices about what we ingest all the time. There are restrictions on what time we can buy alcohol and at what age we can buy cigarettes.

Food, though, is different, according to Kathryn Oths, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama. Soda and other similar products, "[are] cognitively mapped as food or nourishment, not as vices or extras."

"Soda is not a controlled substance, but rather sits on the dining room table or in the fridge, available to all. For some, to appear to be taking away one's soda ... is chipping away at some of the remaining pleasures that people have available to them," says Oths.

Despite all of this, Oths predicts people will get used to the soda ban in time, just as they did with Bloomberg's public smoking ban. "Initial studies have shown an association between getting soda out of schools and declining BMI in those schools, which could help make the idea more acceptable eventually," she says.

New Yorkers will find out in March 2013, when the ban is expected to officially go into effect.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maggie Mertens