Soda ban hard to swallow
Soda is bad for us. And the government does have a duty to play a vigorous role in public health. After all, you aren’t going to solve a cholera epidemic by telling people not to drink the tainted water any more than you are going to stem the tide of obesity by simply telling people to drink less soda.
Seventy percent of Bronxites are overweight and these circumstances call for smart public policy.
But there is a big problem with the mayor’s ban on the sale of big sodas.
The point of a public health policy like this one is not to place responsibility for creating a healthier society entirely on the individual, but to put pressure on the myriad industry forces colluding to keep us unhealthy.
That way, the thinking goes, norms will slowly change — similar to the way people have altered how they think about cigarette smoking.
Who gives a second thought to no smoking rules in airplanes and offices? And yes, legislation led the charge of change, which was initially met with stiff resistance.
But the weight of the obesity problem calls for solutions that do not play into the hands of industry forces crying “nanny state” anytime the government gets involved in the health of its citizens.
Instead of restricting what size sodas vendors can sell and how much individuals can purchase in a single cup, we should institute incentives for sellers to offer healthy options alongside unhealthy ones.
How about forcing those who sell sodas beyond a certain size to offer free cups and water fountains? A policy like this will still allow a couple to share a large soda in a movie theater or a family to share a giant drink in a ballpark at less expense than buying multiples and does not reward the seller with additional revenue if those same people choose to purchase multiple drinks.
Instead, it will reward those who make the healthy choice and will force those profiting from its sale to dig into their own pockets to offer free healthy options, creating a disincentive to sell junk and an incentive to choose the healthful option.
It would also preclude what promises to be a cumbersome, expensive and imperfect enforcement process whose fines might bring in less than it costs.
In all the talk about the soda ban, one issue is conspicuously absent: sugary drinks are cheap. Cigarette taxes have driven up the price of smoking to levels that make it worthwhile for any nicotine addict to think twice. Why not take the same approach with soft drinks?
Economic incentives shape reality. Let’s incentivize health.