Sunday, September 23, 2012

Drinking it in: Thoughts on the NYC soda ban

On the subject of the large soda ban in New York City (which has been passed by the city Board of Health now), even though I live all the way across the country, I suppose I should have an opinion. I mean, I am one who has consumed more than his fair share of carbonated beverages over the course of my life—and still do, in large part because I never developed a taste for coffee; when we go out to breakfast, my caffeine fix comes with bubbles in it.

When I was in my 20's there were days when I probably consumed more than 100 ounces. It wasn't every day, but it wasn't necessarily a rare occasion either. I'm not suggesting this is laudable in the slightest; I'm merely admitting my connection with the item.

Should anyone actually drink that much soda? Of course not. But did it do me in? Thus far, no. Clearly my body was able to process it without making me diabetic. However, we're talking about me doing this when I was already an adult; I didn't drink that much pop when I was a child, so perhaps by shifting my time of indulgence to when I was not developing I avoided the worst of it. Or perhaps it's mere dumb luck. I'm not suggesting my experience would be representative of most people.

I cannot drink anywhere near that much anymore (my body will make me regret it), and I know better than to, but it's not as though I gave up drinking pop altogether. The reality is I like the taste of it.

Still, I'd be glossing over an important aspect of human psychology if I failed to acknowledge part of why in my 20's I'd get the 64-ounce Ultra-Mega Big Gulp was because it was the biggest one offered, and by relative standards it was the least expensive per ounce. If the 64-ounce version were, in fact, twice as much as the 32-ounce one, there'd be no way I'd think it was a good deal and undoubtedly I'd think 32 was enough. But the way fast food restaurants and convenience stores price the fountain drinks, the difference in price from the small to the large is often very small; if you're spending $1.39 for merely 20 ounces, but $1.59 will get you 44, how is twenty cents not a bargain for double? Or if I'm at a sit-down restaurant charging $2.95 for a pop with unlimited refills, I'd feel kind of ripped off if I didn't drink down at least two glasses of it.

We are programmed to consume what we are given. If we have more, we'll drink more—at least until we start to feel poorly. These days I know better than to indulge that much, because I know my body will reject it after a certain point. These days downing too much pop over the course of a day will adversely affect me by the end; there's a reason why generally I don't stock my fridge at home with soda; what I drink when I eat out is more than enough.

Should the state be dictating what we can choose to ingest? No, of course not. However, are there people who lack the willpower to cut themselves off who probably would benefit from that oversight? I'd be a fool to think there aren't. And at times, myself included.

But when I stop to think beyond libertarianism, it's not like I demanded huge soda cups; the manufacturers and retailers who make money off the sale of pop are the ones who were essentially manipulating me with their offerings and pricing structures. I must take responsibility for choosing to go along with that—I'm no victim in this scenario—but it wasn't like the companies had my best interests in mind; they sought profits above all else.

Yes, if collectively we all chose to reject the huge sodas the companies and stores and restaurants would have little choice on their part but to react with different policies. However, history shows humans are slow to simply select less when they can have more.

I think the greatest flaw of the NYC restrictions may be that they aren't really taking on the problem more thoroughly. It's limited in scope, and as has been satirized by Jon Stewart with he and his staff's usual dexterity, it avoids all the other sources of obesity. Unlike smoking bans or seatbelt laws, with actual consequences, this is mostly just an annoyance. It's mostly toothless in affecting what gets behind our teeth.

If I lived in the city and was accustomed to getting something at a ballpark or restaurant and suddenly I got something less, I'm sure I'd respond with disparaging words for the mayor. But over time would I adapt to the smaller portion?

Clearly over time I adapted to the larger portions that were offered, so I must imagine going back would be equally feasible.

At the end of the day, I still lean more toward having the government stay out of my life when it comes to matters of personal choice, but as little faith as I have in the government I'm not sure I can say that's lower than my faith in my fellow humans when it comes to their ability to make tough choices. Again, at times myself included.

When I have kids likely I will have to curb my soda intake even more to set a better example for them. That's what will really force my proverbial hand to choose what the "nanny state" may or may not ever be able to impose.

And if the government stopped subsidizing corn for the sweeting agent in the pop and a soda started costing five dollars a cup, I wouldn't stop drinking it—I like it—but I'd really have be choosy about when I'd indulge.

But give it up altogether? Probably not.

Perhaps decades from now we'll look upon drinks with processed sugar with the same disdain cigarettes have, and maybe I'll be the old guy who has to sit in a special section to consume the carbonated drink. If that's the worst side of history on which I find myself, I can live with the burps.

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