Illustration by Ted Parker
Illustration by Ted Parker

A judge’s ruling that threw out New York’s ban on large servings of sugar-sweetened beverages may well have opened the door to a more ambitious effort by the city to fight obesity and chronic disease.

Although the law was an admirable effort, it simply didn’t go far enough in limiting large-sized servings of sugary drinks. Now, the judge’s ruling could give New York a second chance at crafting a law that applies to all sugary drinks and sales establishments.

Justice Milton A. Tingling Jr. of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan said the law was “arbitrary and capricious” in that it didn’t treat drink and food establishments equally. The law applied to some beverages but exempted others, and it banned the sale of supersized drinks in some establishments while allowing them elsewhere, the judge said.

Among its biggest loopholes was that the law didn’t apply to all high-sugar beverages, including those with high milk content such as shakes and lattes. It also didn’t cover supermarkets, convenience stores or bodegas, because these establishments aren’t regulated by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (The soda ban was supported by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.)

The gap in regulatory authority resulted in a loophole that paradoxically would have excluded the actual Big Gulp, which is sold by 7-Eleven and has more than 360 calories of added sugar. That amount, when regularly consumed, has been shown to increase one’s risk of becoming overweight and obese.

Excessive Amount

Even the 16-ounce threshold contained in the law is an amount that significantly exceeds the American Heart Association’s guidelines for a full day’s intake of added sugar -- 100 calories for women and 150 calories for men, or the equivalent of 8 ounces and 12 ounces of soda, respectively.

Sugar is a worry because excess consumption increases the risk of heart disease. Research indicates that women who drink 16 ounces of soda every day are at a greater relative risk of developing coronary heart disease and diabetes than they are of developing lung cancer after daily exposure to secondhand smoke.

Research has also revealed how the consumption of too many calories increases the risk of chronic disease. The Pennington Biomedical Research Center recruited healthy volunteers and fed them 40 percent more calories than what was needed to maintain their weight every day for seven weeks. As the volunteers gained an average of 16 pounds and their waistlines ballooned, researchers saw that excess calories were deposited as fat in the liver, interfered with the normal insulin response, increased inflammation in the body, raised blood pressure and damaged blood vessel walls, making them vulnerable to atherosclerosis.

Similar findings have been seen in a national study of almost 5,000 children. Higher levels of inflammation, larger waist circumferences and lower levels of protective HDL cholesterol were measured among 3- to 11-year-olds with the highest levels of sweetened soda intake.

Because people suffer from what has been dubbed unit bias, how much they consume is based on the amount they are served. A person served 32 ounces of soda will automatically tend to drink more than when served 8 ounces. Because a serving of a sweetened soft drink greater than 8 ounces to 12 ounces will increase the risk of chronic disease in most people, it makes sense to limit the serving size. If people don’t care about their health, they can always order more than one serving. But because we generally expect that business practices shouldn’t automatically harm people, stricter regulation is warranted.

Obesity Emphasis

Because trans fats increased the risk of heart disease, it was easy to see why banning them was an appropriate action for government to take. Protecting people from harmful business practices that lead to chronic diseases is a public-health responsibility. The main difference between the trans-fat ban and the soda-serving-size ban has been the emphasis on the obesity epidemic rather than a full airing of the clear associations between soda consumption and chronic diseases.

New York should see the judge’s ruling as an opportunity to revise the law to close the loopholes, including the Big Gulp exemption, and develop regulations in line with the scientific consensus that even 16 ounces is way too much.

(Deborah A. Cohen is a doctor and a senior natural scientist at the nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She is the author of the forthcoming book “A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic -- and How to End It.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Deborah A. Cohen at dcohen@rand.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.