NYC soda ban is not an issue of freedom

I swear, I am going to write about education and information recall eventually.  But NPR asked me to do an interview about the New York Soda Ban (which is a lousy name, because soda is not being banned, just large containers; they should have called it the Container Ban).  So instead of my previously scheduled comments, today you get some thoughts on why the ban isn’t a freedom issue and also a short rant about why the New York City Beverage Association rep can kiss my ass.

There are lots of intelligent reasons one might oppose this ban.  But before I get to those, a couple of arguments that shouldn’t be made.

First is that it will have no effect.  It is absolutely unarguable that this will reduce sugared soda consumption: there is no reason to believe it will make it go up, and if even one person buys just one smaller soda instead of two, you’ve made a difference.  And there is abundant psych research to suggest that the effect will be substantial (studies on the unit bias, a ton of studies by Brian Wansink, and a heap of practical sense are all on the ban’s side).  If you don’t believe this, just think about your own behavior.  If you are at the movie theater and you are getting a drink, and the large is smaller than it used to be, are you really going to order two?  Be honest.

Second is that it is an issue of choosing what you drink.  Half the quotes from “man on the street” interviews are about how the government shouldn’t have a say in what kind of soda you consume.  Which they do already, because they won’t let you make soda filled with cocaine or bleach – if you want to drink that, you have to add your own.  But leaving that aside, this is not about what you drink but rather how much of it you drink.  And not even then, because you’re still free to buy as many as you want.  You’ll just pay a premium for doing so.

Third is that this ban is about trying to limit your free will.  This one is the most important but also the most complicated.  Let’s presume here, by free will, that we mean conscious choice.  If you engage your conscious brain, you are free to make the conscious choice to buy two sodas and to deal with the resultant weight issues in whatever way you see fit.  Meanwhile, you are drinking exactly 1 liter of soda because of a French law made in 1795 that defined what a liter was.  Nobody was pissed yesterday that you couldn’t get a drink in a 1.1 liter bottle.  Why?  Because this is just an issue of norms and standards.  And setting those norms (and making you responsible for consciously violating them) is well within the rights of the government to act for the health of its people.

It is a little like organ donation.  If you made the default “yes, I’ll donate” and people had to consciously choose to opt-out, you’d save a lot of lives.  Having the default as “no” is a policy choice as much as the “yes” default is.  So all that is happening here is to make the default choice for soda “less than 16 ounces”.  You’re free to ignore the default if you want to expend mental energy to do so – your freedom has in no way been curtailed.

Now, some arguments you could make.  You could say “yes it will be at least somewhat effective, but it isn’t worth the additional legislature”.  How someone responds to that argument comes down to a personal belief about how bad laws are and how much good you can do with this one.  You could also make the argument that “this is a good law, but there are better ones,” like taxing sugared beverages, which raises money for anti-obesity campaigns.  Trouble there is that NYC and others have tried to get that passed, and they almost always get shot down by lobbyists.  But it is still an argument worth making.

Generally, I’m in favor of this law, although I would prefer a tax.  I think when people are confronted with the choice between a big diet soda that is cheaper and a small sugared soda that is more expensive, diet soda stands a better chance of winning.  But I’m also not personally involved, since I only drink diet soda.

Now, industry spokesman Stefan Friedman, a special bit of rant just for you.  Friedman was quoted as saying: “It’s time for serious health professionals to move on and seek solutions that are going to actually curb obesity. These zealous proposals just distract from the hard work that needs to be done on this front.”

Sorry, what?  First, did you just imply that serious health professionals aren’t working on curbing obesity?  This sort of proposal is exactly the sort that most psychologists get behind, because it addresses the obesogenic environment.  Prevention, more than treatment, is precisely what is effective and there is more than enough solid science to suggest that this will have an effect.

Second, if you want to talk about distractions, let’s talk about the $9 million dollars the American Beverage Association spent in 2010 lobbying against these type of restrictions.  If you want to help curb obesity, why don’t you stop lobbying and pass that money to scientists, who will be more than happy to put it to good use working on even more programs to help us change the food environment?

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