New York City vs. Sugar

According to a 2012 report, obesity is, “the leading cause of preventable death—second only to tobacco” in New York City. The vast majority of city dwellers (3.5 million people—or 58% of adults) are overweight or obese, pushing obesity and obesity-related conditions to “epidemic” proportions. Creating a healthier New York is clearly a public health priority, so why have efforts to address this devastating—and preventable—cause of death been so unsuccessful?

Sugar © Martyn4 (flickr.com/photos/martyn404)

Sugar © Martyn4 (flickr.com/photos/martyn404)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg first explored ways to counter obesity by disincentivizing
New Yorkers from consuming sugar-sweetened beverages (“SSBs”) in 2006, when the New York City Board of Health implemented nutrition standards for day care facilities. These guidelines stipulated that children over eight months of age could not be served more than six ounces of 100% juice each day. Children over two years of age were served 1% or skim milk. In 2012, the Board of Health required New York City summer camps to adopt similar health standards.

Bloomberg’s administration went on to propose policies aimed at reducing consumption of SSBs, but continually failed to win the necessary approvals. In 2010, the administration’s proposal to bar the use of food stamps to purchase SSBs was rejected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture due to the difficulty of enforcing such a policy. That same year, Bloomberg was also unsuccessful at lobbying state legislators in Albany to pass a soda tax that would allow the state to collect an additional penny per ounce of soda sold. Influenced by statewide anti-taxation sentiment, Albany voted against the proposed tax.

The administration’s last effort in this arena—a move to restrict the size of SSBs that could be purchased at food service establishments (commonly known as the “Soda Ban”)—was approved by the New York City Board of Health just months before Bloomberg left office. However, in 2014, the New York State Court of Appeals found the ban to be illegal—an overstepping of the New York City Board of Health’s regulatory authority.

Four months after this ruling, in October 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intention to reengage in the “Soda Ban” litigation on the part of New York City.

Like his predecessor, de Blasio and his administration recognized the gravity of the city’s troubling obesity epidemic and acknowledged the linkage between obesity and consumption of sugar—particularly via consumption of SSBs. While running for office in 2012, de Blasio lamented, “As a parent especially, I feel that we have been sadly losing the war against obesity, and, so, I believe that the mayor has been right on this issue.” Dr. Mary Bassett, de Blasio’s Commissioner of the Department of Health, and an expert on public health epidemics, further released a statement, saying, “we will continue to look for ways to stem the twin epidemics of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, by seeking to limit the pernicious effects of aggressive and predatory marketing of sugary drinks and unhealthy foods.”

In addition to pursuing the “Soda Ban,” de Blasio also intends to develop programs that promote the health and well-being of the city’s communities.

New York City has demonstrated tremendous foresight in its efforts to limit consumption of sugar-laden beverages as one of many strategies to fight the worsening obesity epidemic by promoting healthier dietary choices. While the city itself has not successfully formalized its own proposals, New York City’s various endeavors have helped establish taxes, restrictions, and regulations on SSBs as practicable tools for policy makers interested in preventing and controlling obesity.