For the past 9 months, a saccharine war has raged on the billboards, subway adverts, newspapers and televisions in New York. On the one hand stands the office of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and against him stand the temporarily united forces of Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola and Dr. Pepper Snapple, along with various bars, cinemas and other businesses that would stand to lose some profits. Having worked in many such establishments, and seen quite how many pints of cola can be made from a single $50 box of syrup, I can tell you there’s a lot at stake for them.
In the last year, Mike had a dream that no New Yorker would go out and consume any sugary beverage over 16oz. For those of you who don’t measure liquids by the weight they’d have if they were made of pure water (go America), that translates to 473ml, which is exactly one American pint, and is a bit short of a British pint. This doesn’t prevent refills, and still allows for supermarket shoppers to pick up 2L bottles, so it seemed quite bizarre to me that anyone would actually feel a pinch at this rather light legislation. After all, in France, Britain, Japan and Brazil (at least) a ‘large soda’, as defined by McDonalds, is about half the size of their ‘large soda’ in the USA, at around 450ml as opposed to 30oz (887 ml).
This isn’t Bloomberg’s first health kick. NYC was one of the first cities to ban indoor smoking, and in 2011 added most public outdoor spaces to that too. He pushed through the first law requiring fast-food restaurants to display calorie counts, which is now a federal law for any chains, and can be horrifically scary if you venture into say, KFC. He also banned trans-fats in restaurants and is looking at cutting back on sodium too.
Maybe thanks to Bloomberg, maybe thanks to continuous immigration from healthier places, or maybe just because they’re always so busy and don’t have cars, New Yorkers are already a healthy bunch. The average New Yorker, whilst maybe somewhat bigger than an average European or South American, is a generally fit and slim individual by American standards. A walk down the street shows nothing like the ~30% obesity rate that is generally given as the average for an American adult. My Portuguese teacher recently told me that she was surprised people were so thin when she moved here, after growing up seeing American TV and tourists. “Thinner than in Brazil?” I asked. She didn’t stop laughing for a good few minutes.
Bloomberg began with a campaign “Are You Pouring On The Pounds” which showed as graphically as possible just how much sugar is in one bottle of soda, iced tea, or even ‘Vitamin water’ and so on. Some of them were quite sickening, some wonderfully enlightening and none of them really felt too far from the truth. It worked, too, I went from the occasional fizzy drink to drinking nearly nothing but water, tea and fresh fruit juices.
Not generally having access to TV, it was only very recently I saw that campaign at a friend’s house. In the ad I saw, three friends sit at a bar, two ordering a ‘cola’ and the third sitting there eating his way through sixteen packets of sugar. “You wouldn’t do this”, ends the advert, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the IT Crowd’s anti-piracy parody.
One major difference I’ve noticed about American advertising is that it’s very confrontational. Rather than a simple ‘enjoy our product’, advertisers are happy to call out their competitors by name and make hilariously selective point-by-point comparisons in the areas in which they have an advantage. In much the same style, the drinks companies quickly fought back with some very directed adverts of their own, such as the “Don’t let bureaucrats tell you what to drink” campaign. This, unfortunately, didn’t quite have the same impact because, let’s face it, it’s a pretty hard case to argue on the actual health merits being called into question.
That’s not to say it’s only rich companies arguing the point though. The papers today are full of quotes from ‘real New Yorkers’ in favour of choice, and in Mississippi, the state with the highest obesity rate of all, they’re going one step further. Not just content with avoiding having hippies like Mike Bloomberg (who is, lest we forget, number 13 on the Forbes Rich List), they’re actually looking to proactively pass laws protecting gluttonous consumption.
There may not be any need though. Today it was ruled that Bloomberg’s latest soda law will not pass because it is overly arbitrary, given the loopholes needed to prevent NYC stepping outside of its jurisdiction. So, it seems that for now, the great state of Mississippi, the obese activists in New York and soft-drinks companies are – per the American Dream – free.
The ruling “serves as a major blow to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s incessant finger-wagging,” said J. Justin Wilson at the Center for Consumer Freedom, created by restaurants and food companies. “The court confirmed what most New Yorkers already know: They don’t need a government regulator to dictate their diet choices. New Yorkers should celebrate this victory by taking a big gulp of freedom.”
The large Big Gulp sold by 7-11 was recently reduced in size to a mere 50oz (1.5 litres). America, Freedom, Liberty…Fuck Yeah.