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Be bolder, Mayor Bloomberg

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Esther Cepeda
June 7, 2012

I'll infuriate all the nanny-state haters out there, but I must say that I love it that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has suggested banning giant sugary drinks.


Too bad the idea is a complete loser.


Not because it is silly of Bloomberg to try to legislate portion control on an unwilling populace, but because his plan doesn't go anywhere near far enough to really be effective.


As it is, the proposed ban would prohibit the sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink with more than 25 calories per 8 ounces -- such as non-diet sodas, energy drinks and pre-sweetened iced teas -- in portions larger than 16 ounces at places such as fast-food joints, restaurants and sports parks.


But 16 ounces of most sugary drinks still pack too much of a sugar smack. Classic Coca-Cola delivers 54 grams of sugar, which, according to the American Heart Association's guidelines, is well over the recommended daily limits for added sugar of 12 grams for school-age children, 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men.


And the loopholes are big enough to sip a super-ginormous Slurpee through. New Yorkers will still be able to buy and chug down giant milk shakes, yogurt and fruit smoothies, milk- or cream-based iced coffees, plus enormous fruit juices, oversized alcoholic drinks and anything else they like in any size they want from vending machines, newsstands, and grocery and convenience stores.


Soft-drink companies are on the warpath, saying Bloomberg's plan unfairly singles out sodas. They're right -- most people think of high-sugar carbonated drinks when they hear the term "sugary drink." But overdrinking anything sugary, such as 2 percent chocolate milk, for instance, can result in taking in more calories than are burned, so why make soda companies the only culprits? After all, they're also the ones that make zero-calorie beverages widely available.


From the perspective of a mom struggling to teach her two growing sons how to balance occasional treats with a nutritious diet so they don't succumb to the Type 2 diabetes that runs in my family -- and is ravaging America in general -- too-big sizes of everything are the real problem.


Some folks complain that it's their right to choose to consume as much of any drink as they please, but what about the right of citizens to access drinks in reasonable portions? Why should customers have to pick between large, larger and gigantic sizes? If society feels the need to bow to those who feel entitled to a bucket of liquid, why can't those who want to buy 8-ounce sizes also be appeased?


Teaching my kids healthy servings for their size is already a constant struggle -- I've explained that the nutrition facts on food labels are based on adult-size 2,000-calorie diets too many times to count. Yet being armed with that knowledge is useless when a consumer's default choice of beverage size is already too big.


Whether it's high-sugar soft drinks that are often only available on-the-go in the standard 16-ounce size that everyone thinks of as a single serving but is actually two -- and is the default size of a "dollar drink" at most fast-food restaurants -- or sweetened iced teas that can only be bought in 20-ounce cans at the corner convenience store, it's really hard for even the most aware and disciplined consumer to make the best choices for themselves and their families.


Unless Bloomberg had the all-encompassing power to ensure that high-sugar drinks of all types could not be sold anywhere (except full-service grocery stores) in portions larger than 8 ounces, the effectiveness of his whole plan falls apart.


Sure, if the proposal becomes law, some people will channel their contrarian streaks and overindulge just to prove a point -- let 'em. But turning back the clock to serving sizes that were common in the 1950s would get people closer to shaking off the portion distortion that has made super-size hamburgers and soft drinks -- and a raging obesity epidemic -- our new normal.


Unfortunately my version is as unrealistic as Bloomberg's belief that his ban will move the dial on the city's wellness levels. Worse, when his plan fails, the very real importance of portion control and consumer choice in battling overconsumption will be disavowed and no one will recognize that the mayor's efforts faltered because he didn't go far enough.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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