Monday 11 March 2013

Blind to others' ends

Marion Nestle's op-ed in the New York Daily News is breathtaking.

She begins:
If we want Americans to be healthy, we are going to have to take actions like this - and many more - and do so soon. It's long past time to tax sugar soda, crack down further on what gets sold in our schools, tackle abusive marketing practices, demand a redesign of labels - and extend the soda cap, no matter how controversial it may seem. This must be the beginning, not the end, of efforts toward a healthier America.

In short, we need a series of serious changes to make the healthy choice the easy choice. The soda size cap is a nudge in that direction. You will still be able to drink all the soda, and down all the sugar, that you want. The cap on soda size makes it just a tiny bit harder for you to do so.

...Most people eat whatever size is in front of them - the "default," in public health-speak - and are content with that amount. So a reasonable goal of public health intervention is to change the default drink to a smaller size. Hence: Bloomberg's 16-ounce size cap. From my nutritionist's perspective, a 16-ounce soda is still generous. Just one contains the equivalent of 12 packets of sugar. Just one provides 10% of the daily calorie needs of someone who typically eats 2,000 calories a day. Just one contains the upper limit of sugar intake that health officials recommend for an entire day. Once you down a 16-ounce soda, it's best to stop right there.
From my perspective, as someone who regularly shares a soda with his wife at the movies, having to leave a movie for a refill is more than a minor inconvenience and no longer being able to share a drink with your wife adds more than a minor cost. But Nestle either can't see the diversity of ends sought by those wishing larger sodas, or considers them irrelevant collateral damage.
So-called "nanny-state" measures - like bans on driving while drunk, smoking in public places and, now, selling absurdly large sugary drinks - help to level the playing field. Such measures are about giving everyone an equal opportunity to live a safer and healthier life.
I'd thought the point of drink-driving laws was the protection of other drivers. And that's how bans on smoking in public were sold, though that always seemed really rather a stretch when they started pushing for bans in outdoor areas.

The column doesn't get better.
At the moment, it is up to you to make healthier choices, but that's not easy in the face of relentless soda marketing. Governments have a responsibility to provide healthier environments for their citizens.
Yes, we're all helpless in the face of marketing. I think she needs some theory explaining why ads for soda are that much more persuasive than ads for milk and kale.
Here are some additional actions New York City should take, if only it were allowed to. Close the loopholes. The city does not have jurisdiction over sales of sodas in convenience stores and supermarkets. The state does. Gov. Cuomo denied Mayor Bloomberg's request to extend the size cap to those stores, not on principle but because he hadn't thought about it. He should, right now. Let's keep all sugary drinks to 16 ounces or less.
And what of larger families who like to share larger-sized drinks? Or buying soda for parties?
Fix the price differential. A 7.5-ounce can of soda costs twice as much per ounce as a two-liter bottle, and you can't buy just one; it comes in an 8-pack. Price determines sales. If a 16-ounce soda costs a dollar, a 32-ounce soda should cost two dollars.
Hey, let's extend her price control regime to everything. If a single toilet paper roll costs $0.25, there's clearly no reason that a 24-pack should cost anything other than $6.00. If a half-dozen eggs costs $4, then a dozen should cost $8. If a single drumstick at KFC is $1, then a 20-pack should be $20. If a night at a hotel is $100, then a week should be $700. There's no reason anybody might provide volume discounts except to foster addiction and overconsumption. If a motorbike with two wheels costs $10,000, then a car should cost $20,000 because it has twice as many wheels. Just put Marion Nestle in charge of the "Setting the price of everything" committee. It'll be great.
Tax sodas. Most people wouldn't dream of eating candy all day, but soda companies have made it seem normal to drink sodas from morning to night. Raising the price of sodas would discourage sales, especially among young people most susceptible to marketing efforts and most vulnerable to weight gain. A one-cent tax per ounce should do the trick and raise plenty of needed revenue besides.
I rather doubt that a one-cent-per-ounce tax would satisfy her thirst.

It goes on in this vein for a while. She concludes:
Actions like these will evoke ferocious opposition from the soda industry, and it will spare no expense to make sure such things never happen. We would surely hear more and more howls of "nanny-state" from those who insist Bloomberg has led us to the brink of a public health police state. Polls say that many New Yorkers oppose the 16-ounce cap and would oppose measures like this, too.

But I can't tell whether the opposition comes from genuine concern about limits on personal choice or because soda companies have spent millions of dollars to protect their interests and gin up histrionic, misinformed opposition.
Oh, those illegitimate howls of "nanny state" against a woman who wants to ban advertising of soda (if it looks to her like the marketing targets kids), ban vending machines in schools, mandate great big calorie warning labels on the front of containers, and ban 2-litre bottles from supermarkets.


  1. Wow, if it isn't nanny state, I'd love to know what she'd call it. Why don't they just bite the bullet and ban all restaurants/cafes and open city wide soup kitchens that serve kale based offerings only.

  2. $5 she calls it "Canny State". Or a nudge.

  3. The message is clear. Women must not be allowed to participate in public life, in any way, shape or form. In fact, they shouldn't be allowed to vote. Emancipation has coincided with out-of-control growth of the state. Ipso facto: if we value liberty, women must be kept at home.

  4. Positive claims about extension of the franchise and growth of the state are empirically defensible, though normative consequences there would require auxiliary assumptions. I rather expect that your claims about emancipation - which includes the right to own property, sign contracts on one's own behalf, and the like - are utterly unsupportable either positively or normatively.

  5. I wonder if she has considered the environmental implications of having to package all of these drinks separately?

  6. She is daft as a brush. The NY Daily News published her witless sermonizing just to piss people off.