Soon you won’t be able to buy soda in servings larger than 16 ounces (in certain places) in New York. The news (New York City’s Board of Health has voted on the issue on Thursday) was reported on adequately, although not too passionately, and it didn’t provoke quite as many splenetic critics as one would imagine. So you could have missed its significance or indeed its insignificance. Don’t worry if you haven’t paid attention however, while discussion about this topic amid healthcare debate and the elections may be politically notable it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever to the problem of obesity or indeed the issue of personal choice. People who want to be obese will find a way to intake redundant amounts of food and drinks regardless of any bans being instilled upon them. And in a country where plenty of personal freedoms have been exchanged for an illusion of safety over the past 11 years, a limit on single serving of soda in some places in one city cannot be seriously considered to be an attack on personal freedom.
People aren’t becoming overweight and obese because they drink sugary drinks out of large cups. It may help that these are readily available, but it’s not the cause or even a significant factor. Keeping healthy weight is not a difficult problem, you have to intake the same amount of energy you use. It’s not too hard to judge either, no one gets obese overnight, if you are obese chances are you’ve spotted that you intake too many calories quite a long time ago. Many people aren’t able to follow this simple logic however. It’s because the problem has deep psychological and social roots. Our instincts haven’t developed significantly for tens of thousands of years. Humans are still operating on the caveman’s policy of eating everything that’s available as the next meal may very well not be coming for a long time. This is no longer true, the next meal will come as soon as you want it to, but the mentality is still there, causing the problem. Therefore the only real difference can be made through careful education over decades, and making unhealthful diet socially unacceptable.
But we need a solution sooner than this can happen. New York City spends around $4 billion each year on medical care for overweight people, as Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement. This is only the tip of the iceberg however. Not only will this number be staggering on the national scale, but it presumably is going on top of the reported $750 billion a year squandered by the U.S. healthcare system every year (around a staggering 30 percent of its budget). This is not surprising either, as David Brooks recently pointed out healthcare institutions are part of Economy II (organisations which aren’t forced to be highly competitive), which tend to get more and more inefficient with time. Both problems are contributing to the fact that USA has healthcare not even comparable to the ones of most other civilised countries. The second problem is of course more important and indicates what everyone already knows, that healthcare needs a magnitude of serious reforms. Nonetheless the first problem shouldn’t be ignored either.
Trying to make people more healthy in the first place should be considerably cheaper than treating them later on. One of the most prevailing, unnecessary and costly problems is the issue of widespread obesity, so it is a good place to start making a difference. In the light of this one can’t criticise Mayor Bloomberg for proposing the ban. Though it is largely meaningless, it is leading the way, and may as well have a marginally positive effect without causing any harm. But this problem can only be tackled seriously on a national level. It is hard to change people’s attitudes toward diet in the short-term, and this is what we want to do (“In the long run we are all dead”). The best way, in the short-term, is probably through monetary incentives, that is taxing unhealthful food the same way tobacco is taxed. And also, on the other end, stopping subsidising farmers producing unhealthful food and subsidising farmers producing healthful products instead, thereby forcing the prices to change (making healthful diet cheaper and unhealthful diet more expensive), and consequently changing people’s diets as well. This is not a simple endeavour but may be necessary if we want the society to operate properly.
Mayor Bloomberg has said that “bold actions to protect the public health always stir controversy at first,” but the truth is that this wasn’t a bold action. Bold actions would not only require much bigger scale, but would also have to be much more comprehensive. It’s high time to stop trying to politically capitalise on weightless solutions such as this ban and start trying to lobby for real solutions which can make people’s waistbands thinner, and healthcare budget thinner too. These reforms should be bipartisan, Democrats will love the social responsibility and the Republicans will love that it’ll lead to smaller healthcare bills. Unless of course they’ll continue to Obstruct and Exploit.
This essay originally appeared in The Firebrand Magazine.