NEW YORK -- It’s not often that a Twinkie earns a bit of praise from a nutrition expert, or that a hefty elected official confesses his food vices before a room packed with spectators and the media.
But nothing was routine as New York’s Board of Health held a public hearing Tuesday on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed limit on the sale of super-sized sugary sodas.
One woman brought a fruit platter as a prop. The list of speakers was so long that it sent the hearing soaring past its scheduled two hours. Impassioned speakers invoked everything from the civil rights struggle to the sugar content of beer as they tried to sway the board either for or against the proposal.
Depending on the speaker, Bloomberg’s plan is a violation of basic human rights; a measure to protect children from lives of diabetes, heart disease and other ills; an economic catastrophe in the making; or a necessary step toward curbing New York’s obesity problem.
If the Board of Health approves the proposal in September, restaurants, cinemas, delis and other food service establishments regulated by the city will be prohibited from selling sugary sodas larger than 16 ounces.
Opponents have dubbed the rule the “soda ban.” Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, at a briefing before the public hearing, insisted it wouldn't be a ban. “This is a limitation,” Farley said, repeating Bloomberg’s contention that nobody is being barred from enjoying sodas. They’ll just have to buy several smaller-sized drinks to fulfill their super-sized cravings.
Inside the vast hearing room, about the only thing everyone agreed on was Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s statement. “Nobody wants to be obese!” he blurted out after arguing against the Bloomberg plan.
But obese they are. According to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 58% of New Yorkers are overweight or obese, and more than 20% of the city’s public school children are obese. Supporters of the soda proposal blame the fizzy drinks for much of the problem, saying Americans consume an average of 40 gallons of sugary soda per person per year.
“A Twinkie or a Cheeto has at least a little nutrition. These beverages have none,” Kelly Brownell, an expert on obesity and eating disorders at Yale University, told the hearing.
The soda plan was announced in May and immediately became fodder for late-night TV and for advocates for the beverage and restaurant industries, who oppose the proposed rule. One group even called a Million Big Gulp March this month. The protest fizzled -- far fewer than the anticipated 500 protesters showed up outside City Hall -- but polls have indicated that most New Yorkers oppose the plan.
Bloomberg’s office has fired back with an ever-growing list of health experts and other personalities, including former President Clinton, folk singer Judy Collins and filmmaker Spike Lee, offering their views on why the rule is needed.
“Look, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, we had gym, and you had to run,” Lee said in a statement distributed by the mayor’s office that lamented Americans’ lazy lifestyles. “Americans -- we’re just obese. It’s crazy.”
Tuesday’s hearing location helped illuminate the issue. The Board of Health office is adjacent to a street lined with food outlets with names like Donuts Unlimited and Lucky Pizza. Before the hearing began, the operator of a food cart selling yet more doughnuts, as well as bagels laden with calorie-heavy toppings, loaded up and move on to his next location.
If the rule passes, the food cart operator as well as the doughnut and pizza outlets nearby would be banned from selling large sodas and could face fines of $200 for each violation.
But grocery stores and corner markets would not be affected, because they're not regulated by the city.
“You have to start somewhere,” said Brownell, referring to critics’ arguments that the proposed rule is unfair and that it makes no sense to ban sodas without also banning extra-large pizzas or unlimited donuts.
Markowitz said that even with the soda ban, some people -- like him -- would never be svelte. “I was an overweight kid, and I’m an overweight adult.... Frankly, I’m overweight because I eat too much pasta,” he said, going on to add red velvet cake, pizza and too little exercise to his list of problems.
“We shouldn’t idolize being razor-thin,” Markowtiz added. “Beauty comes in every size and shape.”
For critics of Bloomberg, the hearing was a chance to attack budget-cutting measures that they say have hindered people’s ability to get exercise.
“If you look at communities like mine, you’ll see that a number of parks and playgrounds have not been renovated in some time,” said City Councilwoman Letitia James, adding that the problems are particularly acute in black and Latino neighborhoods.
All the more reason to impose the soda rule, argued David R. Jones, president of a nonprofit organization called the Community Service Society of New York, which works to improve lives in poor neighborhoods.
Jones accused the food and beverage industry of targeting such areas and of adding health woes to the problems (unemployment, sub-par housing and struggling schools) that black and Latino youths face.
Jones singled out for criticism the Million Big Gulp March, accusing it of undermining the cause of the Million Man March that civil rights activists led in Washington in 1995.
“To suddenly make a sham of that, to equate civil rights and the struggle … to this right to sell non-nutritional substances to young people is an outrage, and it has to be fought,” he said.
By 3 p.m., the scheduled end of the hearing, scores of speakers had yet to approach the podium. Speakers were limited to five minutes, and most abided by the limit. City Councilman Robert Jackson didn’t and continued speaking, begging for a bit more time, as he railed against the proposal as a violation of basic human rights.
“We do not live in a dictatorship!” said Jackson, who concluded by helping himself to a plum and a nectarine from the fruit plate that a previous speaker had left beside the microphone.
“It’s better than a sugary beverage,” one spectator said with a sneer as Jackson left the speaker’s table.