The debate over New York City’s new regulation of sugary drinks—limiting the serving size to 16 ounces in many establishments—has contrasted the need to do something about the obesity epidemic with the need to protect individuals from encroachment on their rights by the “nanny state.”
Discussions of the regulation generally have not recognized that the issues it raises are the same as those involved in the debate over legalizing marijuana and downsizing or ending the War on Drugs.
In general, there are two broad approaches to drug regulation—and, for that matter, to the regulation of sugary soft drinks—public health/harm reduction/cost-benefit approaches and rights-based/civil liberties/libertarian approaches. (There are many varieties of each approach; and some strategies involve elements of both.)
Mayor Bloomberg’s regulation is clearly in the public health tradition. He would argue that putting a deliberately annoying roadblock in the way of purchases of giant-sized soft drinks will cut down on New Yorkers’ overall consumption of empty calories and will decrease the amount and severity of obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay in the population. Doubtless, this is correct, though many people object to being told what sized sodas they may or may not buy.
Other public health measures that were NOT proposed might include:
--a tax on sugary beverages but not on no-cal (and, perhaps, lo-cal) varieties,
--a minimum age (say 12, or 14, or 16 years old) required to purchase sugary beverages,
--a prohibition on drinking sugary beverages in public,
--a prohibition on selling sugary beverages within 500 feet of a school
Interestingly, many of those who object to being told that they may not buy large sodas have no problem with being told that they may not buy marijuana.
While some rights-based advocates might simply allow any soft drinks to be sold to anyone in any size, others might support warning labels, in a parallel to those that appear on cigarettes. For example, “Warning: Consuming sugary soft drinks increases your risk for obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and other diseases.” The logic of this approach is that it leaves the personal health decision, over what substances to ingest, up to the individual; but it supplies relevant information so that people can make an informed choice.
Ultimately, the courts, legislators, and voters will decide on the balance between individual freedom and the health of the population as a whole—not just for sugary soft drinks, but for marijuana and perhaps for other substances as well.
One of my main interests has been in shifting the debate from whether or not to end the War on Drugs to fostering a debate over alternatives to our current policy. I have edited three multidisciplinary works on the subject that discuss a wide range of strategies: Drugs and Society: U. S. Public Policy; Is Our Drug Policy Effective? Are There Alternatives?; and How to Legalize Drugs.
Fish, J. M. (Ed.) (2006). Drugs and society: U. S. public policy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN: 0-7425-4244-0 (cloth); ISBN: 0-7425-4245-9 (paperback)
Fish, J. M. (Ed.) (2000). Is our drug policy effective? Are there alternatives? New York City, NY: Fordham Urban Law Journal. (Proceedings of the March 17 & 18, 2000 joint conference of the New York Academy of Sciences, New York Academy of Medicine, and Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 3-262.)
Fish, J. M. (Ed.) (1998). How to legalize drugs. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson. ISBN: 0-7657-0151-0
Double Big Gulp by Russell Bernice (Wikimedia Commons)
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