New York apex court strikes down ban on large-sized sugary drinks in the city

Soda companies, small business owners relieved; public health campaigners disappointed

Despite the increasing problem of obesity in the US, the Supreme Court of New York has struck down the implementation of a ban on large-sized sugary drinks. The city administration had banned selling sugary drinks of a serving size larger than 16 ounces or 475 ml in May last year.

According to the New York City government, about 58 per cent of the population in the state is either obese or overweight.

The court took a harsh stand on the ban, calling it unnecessary and ineffective. “(The rule) is fraught with arbitrary and capricious consequences,” read the court’s ruling.

The court found loopholes in the ban itself. It noted that the ban would have applied to selective establishments like restaurants, while exempting grocery stores. The order said, “...loopholes inherent in the Rule, including but not limited to no limitations on refills (of soft drinks), defeat the purpose of the Rule.”

The New York City administration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg has, however, opposed the ruling and vowed to appeal in higher court. "Remember, for many years, the standard soda size was 6 ounces - not 16, it was 6. Then it was 12 ounces - and people thought that was huge. Then it became 16, then 20 ounces,” says Bloomberg. He believes it is time a line is drawn at what the standard serving size should be.

The Bloomberg administration has been known to be proactive in taking decisions to protect public health. His administration had taken steps to eliminate trans fats from restaurants and made it mandatory for them to mention calorie counts. These initiatives too had faced similar hurdles.

"The Board of Health's limit on the serving size of sugary drinks does not limit anyone's consumption; it just requires them to think about whether they really want more than 16 ounces,” he adds. The city administration also opposed the court’s observation that the ban might not have been effective. “Reducing sugary drink consumption is critical to reducing obesity and obesity-related illnesses, which kill more people in New York City than anything else except smoking. This is what the portion cap on sugary drinks is all about,” says Thomas Farley, health commissioner of New York City.

The decision has also disappointed experts working on public health and non-communicable diseases in India. “Banning large-sized drinks was a welcome step. (Such) innovative steps along with implementing taxes on high sugar and high fat food products will help us check obesity and protect public health,” says Seema Gulati, head of the National Research Group of National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation.

This is second major disappointment to public health campaigns after the scrapping of fat tax by Denmark last year. “Such steps could have been critical in improving public health scenario,” says Ritu Rana, general manager (non-communicable diseases) with Population Services International, a non profit working on public health. The American Beverage Association, which is largely dominated by soft drinks majors Coke and Pepsi, has appreciated the court’s ruling.  “The court ruling provides a sigh of relief to New Yorkers and thousands of small businesses in New York City that would have been harmed by this arbitrary and unpopular ban. With this ruling behind us, we look forward to collaborating with city leaders on solutions that will have a meaningful and lasting impact on the people of New York City,” says the association in its official release.

Surprisingly, many minority civil society groups such as ones representing Africans and Hispanics have supported the court’s decision. Hispanic groups, representing Spanish speaking people in the city, were apprehensive about ban’s impact on their small businesses. “Today’s State Supreme Court ruling affirms our concerns about the ban’s disproportionate impact on small businesses like bodegas operated by Latino business owners, as this ban does not extend to large grocery chains and stores,” says Jose Calderon, President of the Hispanic Federation. It is being alleged that soda companies have been funding programmes of these groups.

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