New York City Michael Bloomberg is all over the news this morning in the wake of a press conference yesterday at which he proposed a ban on large soft drinks, sugary fruit drinks and sweetened coffee, in an effort to help curb obesity. The proposed ban would cover any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces. (For those of you who guzzle diet sodas by the quart, there's no reason for concern. Diet drinks are excluded, as are milkshakes and those sickeningly sweet blue alcoholic concoctions with little umbrellas.)
Bloomberg described the ban as an example of "doing something" about the nationwide obesity problem, not merely wringing hands.
The New York City Beverage Association raised the question that I'd like to consider here. Protesting the unfair treatment of soft drinks, its spokesman said, "It’s time for serious health professionals to move on and seek solutions that are going to actually curb obesity. These zealous proposals just distract from the hard work that needs to be done on this front."
Is he right? That's a critical question that news stories should address. Will this proposal curb obesity? And where is the evidence for or against that question?
The New York Times, from which I've lifted the quotes above, sets up its story with Bloomberg predictably saying this is an important move against obesity, and the beverage industry just as predictably pushing back.
Michael M. Grynbaum, who wrote the Times piece, notes that earlier Bloomberg proposals limiting smoking and trans fats had been models for action elsewhere in the nation. He goes on to discuss the details of the proposal, and he quotes Bloomberg again defending the proposal.
When Grynbaum finally gets around to asking someone else about the proposal, he comes up with this: "'I think it's a good idea.' Soda 'rots your teeth.'" That's from Sara Gochenauer, 21, "a personal assistant from the Upper West Side." Then we hear from a 20-year-old college student on the Upper East Side, who says "If people want to drink 24 ounces, it’s their decision." (Could this be evidence of a significant East-West split?)
You will look in vain in the Times story for an observation by an authority on obesity. After reading the Times story, I can't form an opinion on the Bloomberg proposal. I don't know whether there's evidence for it or not.
In a brief news post at Time, Courtney Subramanian gives us more than the Times did:
...But the chairman of the Board of Health, Dr. Thomas Farley, who is also the city’s health commissioner, endorsed Bloomberg’s measure. Farley said sweetened drinks are a major factor in the city’s increased obesity rate. Approximately 58 percent of New York’s adult residents are obese and, according to the city, about a third of adults consume one or more sugary drinks per day.
I'd like more than that, including the evidence behind Farley's claim that sweetened drinks are a major factor in New York City's obesity rate. But that's a start--and it was one of only five paragraphs in the Time story.
The Telegraph, which also devotes five grafs to the story in its post, says nothing about the evidence behind the proposal. Even so, it asks readers, in a poll, whether they think this is the right way to tackle obesity--yes or no. The poll might be just a little more interesting if the Telegraph had told readers whether there's any evidence the ban would work. We can thank for the Telegraph, however, for doing the metric conversion. The Bloomberg proposal, it reports, would ban sales of sugary drinks of 473 ml or larger.
Michael Howard Saul at The Wall Street Journal turns in a slightly longer story in which he writes that Bloomberg aides said "the single largest driver of the increases in obesity and caloric consumption is sugary drinks." Interesting if true. I'm glad to learn this, which I didn't learn from the other stories, but I trust reporters would be as skeptical of the mayor's aides as they are of the beverage industry. Where is the outside authority with a knowledgeable comment?
Obesity experts are not hard to find. The issues isn't complicated; nobody's asking general assignment or city hall reporters to decode dark matter or protein folding. We just want to know whether banning 64-ounce Cokes will help us keep our trim figures--and maybe reduce the chance that we'll have a heart attack climbing the subway stairs.
- Paul Raeburn