New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arriving to record The Late Show with David Letterman on Monday 11 March, just hours after a judge struck down his ban on big sodas. Photograph: Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage
Mike Bloomberg, now in his 12th and blessedly final year as mayor of New York, is a man who’s used to getting his way. So I would not have wanted to be in his city hall bullpen or blacked-out SUV when he heard that a last-minute court decision had voided his pet project: a city ordinance that would prohibit the sale of supersized soft drinks and other sugar-packed beverages. Monday’s ruling didn’t just undercut the mayor’s farewell gesture, a capstone in his crusade against unhealthful or just distasteful public behavior, which he was planning to trumpet on Letterman that night. It was a public humiliation. And whatever the prohibition’s benefits and drawbacks, it looks like a deserving comeuppance for a man who has better things to do than listen to other people.
The court’s ruling was an ornery one, suggesting that the mayor’s law went both too far and not far enough. The judge, one Milton Tingling, said that the city’s board of health cannot “limit or ban a legal item under the guise of ‘controlling chronic disease'”; only the city council, New York’s legislature, had that authority.
At the same time, the judge claimed that the types of beverages the law regulated had been selected in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner. In other words, it was invalid because it wasn’t strict enough. His decision also jumps between claiming that the prohibition hurts businesses at random and asserting that “political and economic concerns” lay behind the exceptions, as if Coca-Cola is some poor disenfranchised operation with no political clout.
I agree with Alex Koppelman of the New Yorker that the court’s ruling is “for the most part poorly written and argued” – but it’s true that the law had weird loopholes. Milkshakes were fine, for example, thanks to the dairy lobby. An antisocially massive 64oz Double Gulp from 7-Eleven would have been exempt too, since those stores are regulated by the state and not the city. But free bottles of soda with pizza delivery were out. And in the blingy nightclubs of Manhattan’s meatpacking district, where, for some reason, customers spend $500 or more on bottles of vodka, health officials were ready to crack down on tonic water and cranberry juice. Dunkin’ Donuts was cutting hot chocolate, while Starbucks obnoxiously announced it would not bother to comply for months at least.
Whatever the motivation of Judge Tingling (and there’s speculation that he may have ruled with an eye to his own re-election effort next year), his ruling is a KO for Big Food, which, less than three years ago, also succeeded in clobbering a mooted statewide soda tax. The beverage industry led a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign, complete with Astroturfing advocates handing out “right to choose” leaflets in Manhattan’s Union Square and aeroplanes flying “soda freedom” banners over Coney Island.
The beverage industry even got the NAACP on board! Despite the fact that African-Americans face higher than average obesity rates, its New York chapter pitched its opposition as a question of racial justice –º without mentioning that Coke is one of its principal backers.
I should go on record here and say that I was a defender of the big soda ban, imperfect as it was. It’s totally appropriate for government to regulate the terms of sale of a harmful product, and to safeguard public health from corporate rapacity – in the same way we’ve done with tobacco. And in the run-up to Tuesday’s planned rollout, the mayor’s office released a barrage of statistics demonstrating that obesity disproportionately affected New Yorkers in lower-income neighborhoods, and that these same New Yorkers were far more likely to be knocking back sodas and other sweet drinks. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, a disadvantaged (though, thanks to Bloomberg, gentrifying) Brooklyn neighborhood, 47% of residents reported drinking a sugary beverage once a day; a third of residents there are obese. On Manhattan’s tonier Upper West Side, where only one in eight residents is obese, just 14% of residents were gulping sodas daily.
I take no pleasure in seeing big business defeat big government. It’s even worse to see this corporate victory, helping their profits and harming our health, dressed up in the disingenuous mantle of “personal freedom”. But the mayor brought this defeat on himself, and it’s hard to have much sympathy.
The big soda ban was echt Bloomberg: small-scale, judgmental, tone-deaf, unconcerned with democratic procedure, and, ultimately, only about buying things. There really is a public health crisis surrounding obesity, and a robust, multivocal, broad-based campaign – one similar to the campaign to discourage tobacco use – could help prevent it. That is not what we got, of course. What we got were unilateral, CEO-style pronouncements from the 13th-richest person on the planet, a man whose policies everywhere from health to urban planning have been driven less by civic concern than matters of taste. On Letterman Monday night, Bloomberg mused, “Look, if you want to lose weight, don’t eat” – a nice suggestion when one in six New Yorkers live in households without enough food. Or else there was this charming bit of sociology, just a few hours before the court’s decision:
“If you go back to the 20s, you see these pictures of the old robber barons with their big stomachs out there – that was a sign of success. Today, those people are doing Pilates and running in marathons and triathlons. And if you look at where obesity is in the country, it tends to be in the people at the lower end of the economic ladder who don’t have the ability to take care of themselves as well.”
With contempt like this, with worthwhile political aims couched in the language of personal disgust, it’s inevitable that voters will disapprove – and corporate forces will be able to make up the difference. And while the mayor’s office will appeal the ruling, our arbitrary and capricious CEO is running out of time.
Christine Quinn has officially announced her run for mayor of New York. Photograph: Brad Barket/Getty Images
Monday’s ruling came just a day after Christine Quinn, the glad-handing, hard-charging city council speaker, whom New York magazine recently christened “the lesbian Tip O’Neill”, officially entered the race for mayor. Launching her campaign with a very unBloombergian five-borough walking tour and a gauzy YouTube video, shot 1950s-style at the counter of the Moonstruck Diner, the presumptive favorite struck a populist tone. She spoke warmly about her union-leading father, and not much at all about the $27bn man she’s worked alongside for seven years.
Unlike Bloomberg, Quinn actually has to raise money to get elected. In January, she banked nearly $10,000 from Coca-Cola. And in case you wondered where she stood on this final, most pathetic failure of New York’s imperious chief executive, on Monday night across from Piers Morgan, Quinn took a massive swig from a 32oz soft drink.
guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/12/bloomberg-overreach-big-soda-ban-blocked