Big Talk. No Action. Not Bad.

Arthur Caplan

Should your elected officials have the authority to tell you what you can eat or drink? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is, to his credit, one of very few politicians in the United States willing to engage in any way with threats to public health. He has been very concerned about the toll obesity has taken on the residents of his city. So he decided to cast an evil eye on “big gulp” sodas.

Specifically, His Honor proposed that no business in New York City should sell soda and other sugary drinks bigger than sixteen ounces. Keeping humongous containers of Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, A&W root beer, and other such calorie-infested potions off-limits might help trim the ever-expanding girth of New Yorkers.

The mayor is right to be concerned about obesity. It is an epidemic that is not only killing millions of Americans and countless more people worldwide, but it is also driving the cost of healthcare through the roof. That said, should the mayor or any other public official be scouring the shelves where you shop to make sure you avoid unhealthy drinks like 7-Eleven’s sixty-four-ounce Double Big Gulp?

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal got exactly the sort of response you might expect. A few academics cheered and noted that the available evidence supports the wisdom of smaller portions in helping people lose weight. Everyone else was driven into an ethical frenzy at the prospect of losing their God-given, fundamental constitutionally guaranteed right to drink pop from a trough if they so desire.

Demonstrators showed up at city council hearings with signs reading “hands off my bladder” and “I can pick my own drink.” Restaurants, convenience stores, and theater groups indicated that the harm done to their fiscal solvency by prohibiting the sale of jumbo drinks was incalculable. Libertarian foundations and lobbying groups began the familiar invocations against the nanny state. The media more or less emitted a collective snigger.

I admire the mayor for taking on gigantic portions of food and drink as a source of obesity. Anyone who has been to Europe or Asia and compared their portions to ours and then compared their mass to ours knows what I mean. I also know that a ban on big sugary drinks is both unfair and unlikely to have any impact on the obesity epidemic.

It is unfair because anyone who wants to can buy four twelve-ounce cans of soda or forty-ounce bottles of beer—or bags of candy, boxes of fried chicken, or, in New York, a pastrami sandwich the size of your head. No ban is proposed on any of these belt-busters, and as long as these titanic amounts of food are readily available, banning large servings of sugary soda is to try to bail the obesity ocean.

But that is not the point. The ban on large sugary drinks has triggered a conversation and maybe has made some people more aware of the need to watch their portions. Maybe that is what the mayor intended. After all, you can sometimes do good just by talking big.

Arthur Caplan

Arthur Caplan is director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics and a nationally prominent voice in the debates over cloning and other bioethical concerns.


Should your elected officials have the authority to tell you what you can eat or drink? New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is, to his credit, one of very few politicians in the United States willing to engage in any way with threats to public health. He has been very concerned about the toll obesity has …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.