When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his proposed ban earlier this summer on sodas larger than 16 ounces, I lamented what I thought was a failure of the coverage. I couldn't find any good reporting on whether or not the ban would do what the mayor wanted--reduce obesity. Surely there must be research on this, I thought, but it wasn't easy to find in the coverage, most of which dealt with whether Bloomberg was being too schoolmarmish.
A couple of weeks later, I looked again, and I still could not find what I wanted to know.
Now a fine piece addressing these questions appears from what I'd consider an unlikely source: James Surowiecki, the economics columnist at The New Yorker. Surowiecki notes the dismissive response of the American Beverage Association, which said that people "consume what they want." And then he goes on to say, "Actually, the research shows that what people 'want' has a lot to do with how choices are framed."
He refers to a study in which M&Ms were placed on a desk with an invitation to passersby to help themselves. When the researchers supplied a large scoop, people ate more than when only a small scoop was available. In another study, he tells us, consumers were asked to choose between an inexpensive camera and a mid-priced model. Their choices were about equally divided. But when an expensive camera was added to the mix, more people chose the mid-range camera. Expanding the choices changed what people choose.
Bloomberg's social experiment, he concludes, is no different than the experiment beverage and fast-food companies have been running on us for years, as they dramatically increased the size of sodas. "If Bloomberg has his way, we may start feeling like we're white rats in a maze, but at least there's a good chance we'll be thinner rats," he writes.
I now have the answer I was looking for: The research suggests that Bloomberg's proposal might work. Sadly, many others didn't think this question was worth addressing.