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NYC To Vote On Controversial Sugary Drinks Ban

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The New York City Board of Health is set to vote today on a controversial proposal to ban the sale of some large sugary drinks. The beverage industry is mounting a fierce campaign against that restriction, but public health experts say it would be a good first step in fighting obesity. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The beverage industry wants to frame this as an issue of choice. They even started an organization called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices to campaign against it. Here's their radio ad from earlier this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: So are we going to let our mayor tell us what size beverage to buy?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's unbelievable. Once again he's telling us what we can and can't have.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I make the decisions...

ROSE: The industry mobilized to fight a proposal by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would ban the sale of sugary sodas and other drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts. Health Commissioner Thomas Farley says it's a reasonable proposal to counteract growing portion sizes.

THOMAS FARLEY: Sugary drinks have been identified as probably the largest single driver of the obesity epidemic, been a huge increase in portion size over the year, huge increase in consumption, and good evidence that when people consume sugary drinks they tend to consume more calories and gain weight.

ELIOT HOFF: There's no evidence that this ban will have any impact.

ROSE: Eliot Hoff is a spokesman for New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.

HOFF: I could eat my way through the city from the Rockaways to the Bronx, and I can get a lot of high-calorie, high-sugar foods that have nothing to do with this ban.

ROSE: But among public health experts, there's a wide consensus that New York's restriction on large sugary drinks does make sense. Kelly Brownell teaches public health at Yale University.

KELLY BROWNELL: If industry's claim were true, that this really won't affect behavior very much, why in the heck are they fighting it? So this probably would lead to a large reduction in the consumption of sugared beverages, and that's why they're fighting it so hard.

ROSE: Brownell suspects the industry does not want to see a similar ban enacted by other cities. Still, polls show that New Yorkers are divided, with a slight majority opposed to the ban, and people may still be confused about the nuances of the plan. Big Gulp, 7-11, is that banned or not?

KIM WASHINGTON: Yeah (unintelligible)...

JOHN AYANIAN: I'm going to say the Big Gulp is covered.

ROSE: Starbucks Frappuccino, venti Frappuccino, the big one.

AYANIAN: I would say it's not covered.

ROSE: In fact, neither the Big Gulp nor the venti Frappuccino are covered under the proposed ban, even though both are bigger than 16 ounces. 7-11 is regulated as a grocery store, and those are exempt, so they can sell any size beverage they want, and the Frappuccino is exempt because it contains milk. So Kim Washington of Queens was wrong about the Big Gulp, but she still thinks the proposed ban is a good idea.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. You could teach your kids not to do this or do that, but when you're not with them, they're going to do it. They don't know no better.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: But John Ayanian(ph) of Brooklyn does not think the ban would make much of a difference.

AYANIAN: I just think that people will choose other ways of getting around it and will do whatever they want to do, and in the end they'll still be unhealthy, unfortunately.

ROSE: With or without broad public support, the measure seems likely to get the approval of the city's Board of Health, which is appointed by the mayor, and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley sees no problem with that.

FARLEY: This decision is made by the Board of Health, and they don't make their decisions by referendum. They make their decisions based upon a committee of health experts that are trying to protect the health of New Yorkers. We have a crisis of obesity, we have a crisis in diabetes. We are obligated to act.

ROSE: The proposed ban could take effect as soon as next spring, but first it may land in court. The beverage industry seems unlikely to give up after today's vote. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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