Being free to do something doesn’t just mean being legally permitted to do it. It also means having a reasonable prospect of being able to do it. Parents don’t want their children to become obese, or to suffer the grave consequences of diet-induced diabetes. Yet our current social environment encourages heavy consumption of sugary soft drinks, making such outcomes much more likely. So that environment clearly limits parents’ freedom to achieve an eminently laudable goal.
~Robert H. Frank, Business Day, NY Times
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to prohibit the sale of 32-ounce cups of soda is seen by some as an infringement of individual rights. Others, like Robert Frank, see it as an attempt to help parents raise healthy children.
Personally, I don’t understand why your average person would need to drink a quart of soda in one sitting unless he or she had just finished putting on a roof or tearing down a building in 90 degree heat. Even then water would be a better alternative. When I see kids with a 32-ounce cup of soda, it’s usually at a rest stop on the highway or at the movie theater. So it makes me wonder if Frank is right: Outlawing 32-ounce cups of soda would help parents say no to wheedling kids. Parents without the gumption to say, “Because I said so” can now say, “Because it’s against the law.”
Ironically, a similar soda controversy played out in public schools not so long ago, but schools were on the side of letting kids drink what they wanted. Soft drink companies contracted with schools for “pouring rights,” stocking the schools with vending machines that would carry only the company’s products. In return for exclusive rights to their students, schools received a hefty percentage of the sales. In addition, some schools received a chunk of cash that some applied to building or refurbishing sports complexes. If the soda tended to fatten kids up, they could work out the extra calories on state-of-the-art fields. At least some kids could.
Eventually, however, most schools began to see that being an accomplice to childhood obesity maybe wasn’t the role of public education. Sugared drinks were replaced with diet drinks, flavored water, and juices. When the contracts expired, many schools replaced the soda machines with milk machines, thinking they were helping kids make healthier choices. Kids, however, tended to choose high calorie flavored milks until those milk vending machines disappeared as well.
Now that kids are feeling the effects of adults’ fecklessness about nutrition, the federal government has taken an aggressive role in setting guidelines for calories, choices, and serving sizes. Many schools still run snack bars because they are moneymakers and can help support the cafeteria program, but choices are limited and kids are often not allowed to make a lunch of snacks. Fast food franchises are fading out as school lunch programs as well.
So I guess I don’t have a problem limiting 32-ounce sodas for adults who don’t know better than to set that kind of example for kids or to allow their kids to buy them themselves. There’s precedent for these kinds of guidelines. Kids need help in making good choices, and some parents don’t like to say no. At the movies I’ve sat near kids with sodas as big as their heads; they spend most of the time scooting out of the aisles on their way to the bathroom, parent behind them.
So go for it, Mr. Mayor. Appeal the court’s recent rejection of your ban on Big Gulps – and while you’re at it, go ahead and hide the cigarettes.