The Classist Side of Mayor Bloomberg's War on Soda

Those who've lived in New York City for a while remember fondly a time when not much of anything was banned at all. But there's an even darker side to bans. They widen the divide between the rich, who can find a way around them, and the poor, who perhaps cannot.

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Those who've lived in New York City for a while remember fondly a time when not much of anything was banned at all. And then, slowly, the city started banning up. Maybe sometimes this was a good idea, in practice if not theory (who really wants smoking back in bars?), but it seemed to go against everything New York City stood for, the reasons we came here: for freedom, for lack of judgment, for the opportunity to stay out all night and do exactly wanted, even if that meant drinking excessive quantities of soda.

The New York Post and The Daily News, which both went with Thursday covers featuring teacher "sex scandals," are probably a bit peeved they missed the late-breaking news in the The New York Times that Mayor Bloomberg was proposing a city-wide ban on sodas in sizes over 16 ounces from being sold at restaurants, movie theaters, and street carts. After all, this is excellent tabloid fodder: People hate the threat of having something holy, good, or at least currently legal taken away from them. A controversy over whether people should have the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not they want to consume things is guaranteed to rile folks up and sell some papers, because, if nothing else, we hate to be told what to do. 

But there's an even darker side to bans. They have a socio-economic impact, by which I mean, some people are more affected by bans than others. Bans widen the divide between the rich, who can find a way around them, and the poor, who perhaps cannot. And while Bloomberg's tactics are obviously part of what people dub a "nanny state" ideology, in which he's telling us what to do, he's telling some people what to do more than others. Rich people, among whom one is billionaire Bloomberg himself, are not going to be impacted by a soda ban the same way poor New Yorkers are—if the wealthy prefer huge bottles of soda, they'll have no trouble continuing to find them. And the problem that Bloomberg's trying to "fix"—obesity—is, according to the stats and research, a "poor" problem, not a rich one. This makes Bloomberg's move seem ever the more paternalistic. A class of people whom he's judged unable to make the proper decision for themselves is now being told what to do, by someone who knows better. As he himself said, via the Post:

“All across the country, everybody recognizes obesity as a growing, serious problem,” the mayor said in an interview. “But everybody’s just sitting around wringing their hands, not doing anything about it . . . I think it’s fair to say that while everyone else is sitting around complaining, New York City is acting.”

Bloomberg's lack of love for soda isn't a secret. Note the subway ads that have been busy showing us how soda will make us fat? And back in 2010, he pushed a move to ban soda from being bought with food stamps, causing people to worry about the equity of that move. George Hacker, senior policy adviser for the health promotion project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the New York Times' Anemona Hartocollis at the time, “The world would be better, I think, if people limited their purchases of sugared beverages. However, there are a great many ethical reasons to consider why one would not want to stigmatize people on food stamps."

But none of these bans really serve to get to the point, anyway. If we're to talk of equity, we should also ask why healthy, particularly organic, fresh food costs more than packaged, processed food, why lean turkey or chicken is priced higher than the bad, fatty cuts, or why in some cases the cost of milk is greater than the cost of soda. It seems that a better way to promote health to all would by making it easier for everyone to get healthy, good food—not by "outlawing" the bad stuff, or soda, which beverage industry folks say isn't the cause of the problem in the first place, citing reports that say sugared drink consumption has decreased while our obesity issues keep increasing.

The thing about bans, too, is sometimes they're effective and sometimes they're not. In the case of banned books, they might make things harder to get, but they hardly quell anyone's fire for attaining their chosen material. And if you look at, say, Prohibition, well, that didn't work out so well. As one source told The Daily News of Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban, "He can try, but he can’t stop people from getting what they want." People—those who can—are going to figure out a way to do what they want to do, to drink what they want to drink, regardless of a ban, because we are human adults with the rights to choose what disgusting carbonated sugary concoction we want to consume. And how big said cup is.

So, quickly, solutions to the "ban"—which, keep in mind, is only just being proposed, expect the beverage industry to fight hard against it; if it goes ahead, it will be implemented in March of next year—have been being tossed about. Buy more than one smaller soda, for instance. Buy a big bottle in your grocery store, where they'll still be available, and pour it into a cup of your choosing. (Will large-sized to-go cups be soon banned, too?) Head to a 7-11, which might be exempt from said rule. Keep getting refills, there's no law against that! Or, right now, begin to stockpile your giant sodas and store them under your mattress where no one can find them. These are the knee-jerk reactions to being told something might be taken away from you: Argue, figure out how to get it anyway, complain that this is the doing of, as one New York Post commenter put it so eloquently, "a minuscule megalomaniacal martinet." But also, keep in mind that there's more to all this than simply soda.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.