Last Updated:April 20 @ 03:33 pm

Big sodas today; bagels with a schmeer tomorrow?

By Adam Geller

NEW YORK (AP) - Just how far would a government go to protect us from ourselves?

In New York City - which already bans smoking in public parks in the name of public health and bars artificial trans fats from food served in restaurants - Mayor Michael Bloomberg now wants to stop sales of large sodas and other sugary drinks, in a bid to battle obesity. But in a country where fries have been equated with freedom, Bloomberg's proposal begs super-sized questions about government's role in shaping and restricting individual choices. What's next, a Twinkie purge?

"The idea of the state stepping in and treating adults essentially as children and trying to protect them for their own good, as opposed to the good of others, that's been with us for as long as we've been around, as long as we've had governments," says Glen Whitman, an economist at California State University-Northridge who is a critic of paternalistic public policy.

The most famous example was Prohibition, which barred the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1919 to 1933. But Whitman and others see a new wave of intervention afoot, based on behavioral economics rather than religious moralism, and symbolized by moves like Bloomberg's. Allow it to continue, they say, and who knows where it could lead?

If government officials can limit the size of sodas, why couldn't they next decide to restrict portion sizes of food served in restaurants or the size of pre-made meals sold at supermarkets? Why wouldn't a government determined to curb obesity restrict sales of doughnuts or pastries or - perish the thought, New Yorkers - ban bagels with a schmeer of cream cheese?

If government is within its right to restrict behavior to protect health, then why wouldn't a mayor or other official ban risky sexual conduct or dangerous sports like skydiving? What's to stop a mayor from requiring people to wear a certain type of sunscreen or limit the amount of time they can spend on the beach, to protect them from skin cancer?

The more ho-hum reality is that many of the policies restricting individual choice in the name of public health seem almost benign, like curbs on fireworks sales or enforcement of motorcycle helmet laws. But such moves represent a "constant creep until all of a sudden its extremely obvious," said Mattie Duppler of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax lobbying group that regularly spotlights examples of what it considers overreaching "Nanny State" public policy.

She points to moves by governments, like the city of Richmond, Calif., to impose taxes on sugary sodas and moves by states like Utah, which widened a ban on indoor smoking in public places to include electronic cigarettes that don't emit smoke.

"What we're seeing is government trying to put its fingers around the throat of anything that claims public health impetus," Duppler says.

Others, though, have their doubts. Richard Thaler, co-author of "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness," which argues for policies that encourage rather than mandate changes in consumer behavior, calls Bloomberg's soda proposal "inartful and probably ineffective and too heavy-handed for my taste."

But for him, most of the questions it raises are about practicality, rather than red flags.

Would a Bloomberg curb on big drinks ban free refills, asks Thaler, an economist at the University of Chicago? Would it ban special offers to buy one drink and get the second at half-price?

Thaler, who says he is against government mandates or bans, argues that governments will get the most mileage from policies that nudge behavior, like placing fruit more prominently in school cafeterias. But he dismisses warnings that government efforts to improve public health risks sending the country down a slippery slope of more control and less individual choice.

"Any time people do something that people don't like, they predict it will lead to something awful," Thaler said. "I have not seen a big trend of governments becoming more intrusive."

Even Duppler has her doubts about what Bloomberg's soda proposal represents. It may be so politically iffy that it fizzles before it even gets off the ground. Then again, you never know what to expect from the city that never sleeps - and no longer smokes in bars, in airports or in the park.

"We'll see," she says of the soda proposal. "There's some crazy ideas - and sometimes they just take hold."

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10 Comments

  1. pwpmmpComment by pwpmmp
    June 1, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    I may be missing something here, but most fast-food restaurants no longer serve drinks at the counter. They sell you the cup and you fill it up at the drink station. Who will “police” the soda machines to see that people aren’t filling their big cups with sweetened soda? Isn’t this going to be a royal pain for restaurants? Aren’t they going to have to remove their soda machines completely and go back to selling drinks at the counter?

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  2. RME KRNLComment by RME KRNL
    June 1, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    See what happens when you change the law and let a liberal pantywaist, megalomaniacal munchkin and nanny state numbskull have a third term as mayor?

    NYC is getting exactly what it deserves for reelecting this nanny state mayor. You could not pay me to live in NYC under normal circumstances and you surely couldn’t do it with Bloomey in charge.

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  3. lowlifeComment by lowlife
    June 1, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    When are people going to wake up, throw these tyrannical morons out of office and reverse all the bans? It is no business (nor within the legitimate authority) of government, at any level, to tell anyone what, where, or how much they may, or may not eat, drink, or smoke. Any legally allowable government involvement in “public health” is confined to the attempt to control communicable disease.

    Free people have the right to make their own decisions and live with the consequences; children’s health and safety is their parents’ responsibility; the property rights of business owners allow them to set whatever policy they like in their establishments (those who dislike the policy don’t have patronize them, or work for them). Personal liberty and the right to control your own property are being destroyed by out-of-control government and the majority of people seem to be too damn stupid to care.

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  4. markusComment by markus
    June 1, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    He’s just jealous that a 16 oz soda is taller then he is, what a little punk he is , before you get to tell me what I can have for the good my health , I want to see all your blood work , you little troll of a man

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  5. Gabrielle SymeComment by Gabrielle Syme
    June 1, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

    NYC. How long before polygamy or inter-species ‘marriages’ are allowed there. But whatever you do, DON’T SUPER-SIZE THAT SLURPEE!

    What? As our once-great civilization continues its fall, we’ll all be slim teetotalers?

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  6. genesalComment by genesal
    June 1, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    The 18th Amendment is just sitting there not being used. Just replace the word alcoholic beverages with soda beverages and there you go!

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  7. Jota_Comment by Jota_
    June 1, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

    Here is the real irony, those who sell the beverage will be prohibited, meaning they need to act responsibly, or go to jail but those buying are assumed to be incapable of acting responsibly.

    Who is equal to whom?

    This definitely makes some unequal before the law

    Does anyone think sellers will be able to make the excuse they just could not control themselves? But that is what the law claims buyers cannot do. Some citizens are responsible, but all need to be told what to do, rather than holding everyone responsible.

    It is the Bloombergs whom create this problem by saying some people are children and cannot be held responsible for their decisions.

    Stop rewarding irresponsible behavior and stop punishing responsible behavior and watch these problems disappear.

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  8. SpikeygrrlComment by Spikeygrrl
    June 2, 2012 @ 12:01 am

    “If government is within its right to restrict behavior to protect health, then why wouldn’t a mayor or other official ban risky sexual conduct…?”

    Because that would upset the homosexual “marriage” lobby. DUH.

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  9. wdjincComment by wdjinc
    June 3, 2012 @ 12:44 am

    Next thing you know the government will compel candy and donuts to post ‘hazardous to your health’ on their packages and include an image of a 300 lb kid.

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    • RME KRNLComment by RME KRNL
      June 3, 2012 @ 1:12 am

      The real ironic oxymoron is that the day after Bloomey announced the ban on sugary drinks, he celebrated national donut day. Go figure. Libs know no bounds when it comes to double standards.

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