Now Cambridge, Mass., Is Weighing a Soda Ban, Too

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The idea's spread to other cities underscores New York's role as a testbed.

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Taking a page out of Michael Bloomberg's playbook, one city in Massachusetts has announced its own plans to pursue a version of New York's controversial soft drink ban:

Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis proposed the idea at the City Council's meeting Monday night, saying she brought the idea forward because of the health risks posed by consuming too much soda.

Davis has ordered health officials to come up with recommendations on how such a ban might be implemented. For its part, New York's draft proposal prohibits most "food service establishments" from selling sugary sodas in quantities larger than 16 ounces, and some reports suggest Cambridge may toe the same line.

Bloomberg's pitch, of course, has met with fierce debate since it was unveiled late last month, so expect to see some of the same battles being waged further north in coming weeks. Some Cambridge lawmakers are challenging Davis' move, saying the city should wait and see what happens to New York before moving ahead.

But that's exactly the kind of thinking that could wind up killing the proposal. As Brian Wansink recently argued, the failure of a New York soda ban -- whatever its deficiencies on the merits -- "poisons the water" for future government attempts at fighting obesity. He was talking about New York, but there's every reason to believe other cities would look to the Big Apple's botched example as a reason not to pursue anti-obesity regulation any further. On the flip side, the more its proponents can legitimize the measure, the better its chances of survival. And one way they can do that, indirectly, is to inspire other local governments to pick up the cause.

If push comes to shove, a Cambridge soda ban won't prevent Gotham's version from dying a painful death. Yet building momentum for these and similar measures helps develop the case that obesity is a collective action problem and that governments are equipped to tackle it, irrespective of the existing cultural obstacles. That's not the narrative driving much of the discussion about obesity at the moment. Right now, the prevailing attitude is that buying a soft drink is a personal choice, and therefore, attempts to regulate that choice amount to an infringement on personal liberty.

Maybe your stance is that local governments shouldn't be in the business of regulating soda consumption in the first place. That's a discussion that's also being hashed out as we speak, although the argument seems reasonably clear. Telling companies to regulate themselves generally cuts against businesses' first instincts, so that's more or less a dead end. Even though soft drinks pose only an ambiguous threat to "public" health -- compared to smoking, whose dangers even to non-smokers are obvious -- we're gradually learning that obesity also imposes significant burdens on infrastructure and healthcare systems that the larger population pays for, too.

Whatever your opinion about the soda ban as it's been presented, spreading the idea beyond New York might do more to change attitudes on obesity than any individual proposal on its own.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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