Public Hearing on Soda Ban Lacks Input From Public

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Dr. Lisa Young, an expert on portion sizes, speaks in favor of the soda ban while brandishing future contraband.
Photo: Andrew Burton/2012 Getty Images

Last month city officials promised that if New Yorkers were passionate about their right to ridiculously large beverages, they'd be able to air their opinions at a public hearing on Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban on sodas larger than sixteen ounces. Theoretically, the average New Yorker had the opportunity to speak, but thanks in part to an inconvenient time and location, the roughly four-hour hearing this afternoon was dominated by politicians, health experts, and soda industry representatives. Ultimately, it probably didn't make much of a difference, since it seems fairly likely that the Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health will approve his proposal.

At a Board of Health meeting last month, the eleven members were courteous enough to at least pretend that they hadn't made up their minds. They asked questions about why only certain foods were restricted and raised concerns about the ban being a slippery slope. However, the New York Times reports that today the eight members in attendance listened with blank faces, and the audience was informed that some members would be "leaving before it's over," or "coming later."

Today's hearing is the only public forum being held before the board votes on the plan in September. Letitia James, a city councilwoman from Brooklyn, complained that the city should have held hearings in the evening throughout the city, rather than limiting discussion to one weekday event at 1 p.m. in Long Island City.

Most of the speakers argued that the ban is necessary to fight the obesity epidemic, according to A.M. New York. At a news conference held before the hearing started, Health Commissioner Tom Farley said he believes the naysayers will come around eventually, since obesity is killing 5,800 people in the city annually. "If a virus were killing 5,800 a year, the public would be clamoring for government intervention," said Farley, though he failed to point out that people don't choose to catch viruses, nor are they great for washing down popcorn.

Councilwoman James, who was among those opposing the ban, argued that rather than limiting soda sizes and potentially hurting small businesses, the city should focus on encouraging New Yorkers to exercise by renovating parks, and expanding physical education programs in schools. The least creative rhetoric came from city council member Dan Halloran, who said:

When they came for the cigarettes, I didn't say anything, I didn't smoke. When they came for the MSG, I really didn't care because I didn't order it very often. I am not a big salt eater, so I didn't mind when you guys regulated salt.

While only 4 of the 64 participants at the hearing weren't elected officials or representatives from groups, it's possible that New Yorkers wouldn't have attended the hearing even if it were held at a time when they didn't have to skip work to opine on soda sizes. The so-called Million Gulp March was attended by only a handful of people, whose commitment to super-size sodas was questionable. A poll last month found New Yorkers were split on the issue, but apparently they aren't passionate enough about either position to take to the streets in protest. Or perhaps they've just accepted that all signs point to the ban passing, and they've resigned themselves to merely grumbling about it.