Inquirer Editorial: Court wouldn't swallow Bloomberg's big gulp

New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and a city restaurateur examine a 64-ounce cup.
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and a city restaurateur examine a 64-ounce cup. (SETH WENIG / AP)
Posted: March 17, 2013

Now that Mike Bloomberg's beverage crackdown has exploded like a vigorously shaken 2-liter bottle of warm root beer, it's worth considering as a case study in how not to address the obesity epidemic.

After a state judge struck down the regulation in no uncertain terms last week, the New York mayor's attempt to cap certain sugary drinks at 16 ounces appeared to have ended in a hail of hubris and fizz. New York Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling - whose surname echoes the feeling Bloomberg seems to get every time he tells us what to do - found that the proposal exceeded the city Board of Health's authority while arbitrarily affecting some businesses and beverages but not others.

Bloomberg deserves credit for a daring response to a serious health problem, but it's telling that he was by all accounts surprised at the reversal. Perhaps it reminded him quite suddenly of the existence of a couple other branches of government. Bloomberg hadn't bothered to seek City Council approval of what in Tingling's estimation amounted to legislation. So the idea that yet another branch, the judiciary, might get in his way must have been bracing indeed.

Bloomberg sometimes seemed equally oblivious to the masses on whom his power at least technically depends. Supporters of the proposal are fond of pointing out that "Big Soda" vigorously opposed it, which it did (along with countless small businesses). But so did about 60 percent of regular New Yorkers.

Shortly before his experiment went the way of New Coke and Crystal Pepsi, Bloomberg condescendingly noted that he was trying to look out for poor people who "don't have the ability to take care of themselves." But people of all income levels have the ability to think for themselves, and most rightly suspected that Bloomberg's policy was nonsensical. It would have applied to restaurants and movie theaters, for instance, but not convenience stores like 7-Eleven - home of the Big Gulp (30 ounces), Super Big Gulp (40 ounces), and Double Gulp (50 ounces).

After the ruling, Bloomberg dwelled on the deadly seriousness of obesity. He is right about that. But his worthy end doesn't justify a means that unfairly picks on particular people and businesses - just as the same ostensible goal failed to rescue Mayor Nutter's well-intended-but-ill-conceived soda tax from the recycling bin in Philadelphia.

Bloomberg's push for prominently displayed calorie counts, by contrast, was reasonable, respectful of the people who elected him, and worth pursuing further. Obesity endangers America's health. That doesn't mean it has to threaten our good sense and democratic principles.

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