RedBlue: Should government set limits on soda size? A look at the sugary debate

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was dealt a defeat this week, when a judge struck down his law limiting soda sizes in the city to no more than 16 ounces. He defended the measure as an anti-obesity effort; his numerous, loud and vocal critics decried him as a "nanny state" politician stepping on freedom with oppressive government rules.

Should soda sizes be limited? Why not try personal responsibility? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.

MATHIS: I, for one, welcome the rise of the nanny state.

Now, nobody wants the government elbowing its way into your kitchen, putting you on a scale, then telling you what you can and can't eat.

On the other hand, maybe it's time somebody did.

Consider: During this decade, the state of New York will spend $136 billion treating obesity-related diseases. Nationwide, all spending on obesity-related diseases rose from 6 percent of health spending in 1998 to 10 percent in 2006. That same year, obesity-related spending comprised 8.5 percent of Medicare spending and 11.5 percent of Medicaid spending. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that 13 states could see obesity rates of more than 60 percent by 2030.

Oh, and: American men have the shortest life expectancy in the developed world. American women have the second shortest.

It's no secret that we Americans are getting fatter all the time. What that means, though, is that every time somebody walks out of a convenience store with a bucket -- excuse me, cup -- carrying 64 ounces of Mountain Dew, they're essentially reaching into your pocket and pilfering a dollar or two for their own medical care. That's true if they rely on public assistance for health care, or if they're on an insurance plan that pools your premiums with contributions from thousands of other customers.

You want personal responsibility? Looks like it's failed. Does that mean we should collectively watch America slide off a cliff made of corn syrup and hydrogenated fats? Or is it appropriate to nudge citizens -- and a 16-ounce soda limitation is, essentially, a nudge -- to make better decisions for their health? We Americans rightly hold tight to our liberties. But sometimes we cannot see the forest for the big, fat, greasy trees. Maybe our national motto should be to "Give us a Big Gulp or give us death." At the rate we're going, we'll get both.

BOYCHUK: Those 64-ounce Big Gulps are ridiculous, aren't they? But a funny thing happened on the way to Mayor Bloomberg's 16-ounce, smoke-, trans fat- and sugar-free utopia. New York's new beverage restrictions wouldn't have touched those gargantuan tumblers because 7-Eleven is a grocery store regulated by the state of New York, not the city.

As New York Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling observed in his order blocking the city's obnoxious soda ban, "the simple reading of the rule leads to ... uneven enforcement even within a particular city block, much less the city as a whole."

For now, New Yorkers will be spared the sight of Bloomberg's health inspectors roaming the city with their 17-ounce measuring cups, threatening to levy $200 fines on violators of what Tingling rightly described as an "arbitrary and capricious" rule.

But it's only a matter of time before another rule, less arbitrary, less capricious, comes along. The Bloombergs of the world cannot help themselves when it comes to helping the rest of us.

Oddly, many of the same people who lauded Bloomberg's soda restrictions have loudly denounced another city initiative that sets no rules, levies no fines and requires nothing of businesses. It simply encourages children to think twice before having children.

The city has put up posters in subway stations and bus shelters that depict sad-faced toddlers stating the hard facts about teen pregnancy.

"I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen," says one. "Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year," says another.

Everyone from the New York Times to Planned Parenthood has decried the ads as "judgmental" and "stigmatizing." Yes. That's the point.

If you want to change behaviors that have lasting and expensive consequences, whether it's obesity or teen pregnancy, you don't need a host of infantilizing new rules and regulations. You need only make the behaviors socially unacceptable.

A fat dose of stigma would do a world of good.

(Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is a contributed editor to The Philly Post. Contact them at bboychuk@city-journal.org, joelmmathis@gmail.com or www.facebook.com/benandjoel. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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