LONG ISLAND CITY, QUEENS, (PIX11)—It's now official. Soon, you will no longer be able to buy large sodas or other sugary drinks in New York City. It's a measure designed to help avert a growing health crisis, but far more people have voiced opposition to the large sugary drink ban than supported the measure which could do harm while it tries to help. How the mayor and his administration handled that aspect of this issue is a study in neglect.
To see the impact the elimination of large sugary drink sales in restaurants and food vendors has, look no further than Halal Kitchen, a takeout restaurant on 21st Street near 40th Avenue in Long Island City, Queens. Its owner, Belkis Actar, showed PIX11 about a half dozen different brands of soft drinks in 20-ounce bottles that she and her husband will no longer be able to sell to customers after the large drink ban goes into effect March 12th.
She said that on multiple occasions she's had potential customers leave and go just four doors down from her restaurant to a bodega, which sells the twenty ounce bottles. That situation is likely to repeat itself frequently when the large drink ban goes into effect six months form now, since the ban does not apply to stores, delis or bodegas, whose beverage sales are regulated by the state instead of the city.
The city's ban was approved by the Board of Health on Thursday by a vote of 8 in favor, 0 against and 1 abstention. It applies strictly to food preparation establishments like Halal Kitchen and 26,000 other restaurants and food vendors citywide. Actar, Halal Kitchen's owner, fears that the new regulation will further hurt her business.
PIX11 conveyed her concern to Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a City Hall news conference about the drink ban. His reaction was anything but sympathetic.
"C'mon," the mayor said upon hearing about Actar's situation. "There's nothing to say. We're talking about saving lives, while you're talking about a hypothetical." PIX11 assured the mayor that Belkis Actar is an actual constituent of his, who's trying to make a living in the restaurant business.
"I doubt this [loss of business] didn't happen often, if it happened even once," he said, calling into question either PIX11's account of Actar's situation or hers.
Bloomberg went on to point out that, according to federal statistics, the nation and the city are facing an obesity crisis. Some 5,000 New Yorkers die each year from conditions related to obesity. Also, at the current rate of obesity-related illnesses, more people are on course to die from obesity than from starvation for the first time ever.
Study after study, said Health Commissioner Thomas Farley at the news conference, concludes that "sugar water is what the science is showing as driving the obesity epidemic." He was referring to the primary ingredients in soft drinks and other sugary drinks.
His assistant health commissioner, Susan Kansagra, has overseen the analysis of data and public input into the process leading to the elimination of large sugary drink sales. She testified in front of the Board of Health before it took its vote, and underscored how hot this whole topic is.
Of the half dozen different issues before the board on Thursday, the only one that had had more than three comments made by the public at hearings or in writing, was the large sugary drink ban, which had 36,000 comments, according to Kansagra's testimony. However, that input had a big asterisk next to it.
"36,000 comments came in," she said before the board, "30,000 [of them were] positive, 6,000 negative." She then added, "One of those negatives was a petition from New Yorkers for Beverage Choices with some 90,000 signatures."
"They counted 90,000 as one," said New Yorkers for Beverage Choices spokesperson Eliot Hoff. "I count 90,000 as 90,000... The public completely sways against this."
Polls have consistently shown a majority of New Yorkers against the sugary drink ban as well. Still, with the vote of the Board of Health, it is now city law, unless legal action against it prevails.
A lawsuit has been threatened by New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a group representing the beverage industry, as well as by the New York Restaurant Association. Neither group has yet to file a legal action.
In related news, on Thursday, Bruce Ratner, CEO of Forest City Ratner development corporation, confirmed at the mayor's news conference that at his most prominent new development, the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, his vendors will honor the large sugary drinks ban immediately.
Barclays Center will be the new home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team and a venue for top-billed concert performers. It is on schedule to open in two weeks. Ratner said there will be no sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces sold at Barclays Center concessions, starting on opening night. Again, the ban does not go into effect until five-and-a-half months after that.