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Soda Wars - downsizing in New York

Wednesday 13 February, 2013 by Jane Martin

New York was one of the first US cities to propose a tax on sugary drinks – it was never implemented. However, in recognition of the problem of overweight and obesity among NYC residents, the city health department has a strong focus on addressing this issue.

There is an impressive range of strategies and programs in place to encourage people to reduce the amount of unhealthy food consumed, create environments to support people to eat healthy food and to encourage active living. Sugar drinks have been singled out for attention because of their large contribution to added sugar in the diet, the calories they provide and resulting overweight and obesity.

The city is one of a number in the US which has run a social marketing campaign since 2009 around sugar drinks to change behavior, particularly in adults and highlight how much sugar is in these drinks and their impact on health. The aim is to highlight the impact of sugary drinks on their risk of developing diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and to encourage people to switch to beverages without sugar instead.

The latest element of the campaign has been to introduce a regulation that would cap the container of sugar drinks to 16oz, which is almost 500mls. Anyone who has visited the US, would be aware of the portion distortion that exists, where supersize has gone to a whole new level. The latest proposal by Mayor Bloomberg, a long-time public health campaigner, has raised the ire of a number of groups and is now being challenged in court.

I happened to be in New York when the hearing challenging the proposed rule took place. This is part of a comprehensive approach, not just around sugary drinks, which encompasses policy, programs and community engagement to encourage healthy eating and active lifestyles.

The reason the regulation was before the court, was because the ability of the city to make this ruling on size was being challenged by the Beverages Council of America, representing among others, Pepsi Co and Coca Cola. That was not surprising, however what was a surprise to me was that an African American civil rights group, New York chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), was opposing the regulation along with the likes of Coke and Pepsi. As in Australia, the health effects of being overweight and obese fall disproportionately on those on low income, including African Americans and the Hispanic community. These groups are also heavy consumers of sugar sweetened drinks, particularly soft drinks. However it was not until later that I understood why they were protecting the profits of soft drink companies in the courtroom.

To understand this you have to follow the money. In December Coke gave NAACP $100,000 as part of $9.9million in grants to healthy living programs in North America. This is a similar tactic used by big tobacco, the NAACP was given funding in the 80s and 90s by Philip Morris and the group was active in opposing an increase in tobacco taxes.

After the objectors spoke, the public health groups put their arguments, including Thomas Farley the New York Commissioner for Health, who has spearheaded much of the work around obesity prevention. Another contributor was an attorney, Jennifer Pomeranz, from the Yale Rudd Centre who represented a number of interest groups, including the Public Health Law Centre, where I am currently based. The arguments were basically legal, around whether the city had the jurisdiction to introduce this restriction on serving size. What made it into the press was the unlikely pairing of the NAACP and the soft drink companies. Unlike Law and Order, in the real world the wheels of justice move slowly, so we will have to wait for Justice Tingling's decision as to whether it is possible for the city to take another step in excising sugary soft drink out of the NYC diet, so watch this space...

NYC Health Commissioner Thomas Farley speaking to the media on the steps of the courthouse after the hearing

NYC Health Commissioner Thomas Farley speaking to the media on the steps of the courthouse after the hearing

This blog was originally posted on Jane Martin's Churchill Fellowship blog - http://churchillobesitystudy.wordpress.com/

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