Once upon a time, illiberal American politicians tried to eliminate the demon drink. Now they want to wipe out sugary soda pop.
Prohibition is a hot topic in the States. A three-part documentary TV series about the 1920s’ ‘Noble Experiment’ kicked off on PBS on Sunday and HBO launched the second season of hit drama series Boardwalk Empire, set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. But the Prohibition, the eighteenth amendment to the American constitution, is not just making a comeback in the world of television. No, contemporary politicians like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg are also doing their best to banish ‘evil drink’.
An all-out ban on alcohol is not on the mayor’s agenda, but he and his close colleague, health commissioner Dr Thomas A Farley, have their sights set on a sweeter target. Soon after endorsing asoda tax last year, the Bloomberg administration submitted a proposal to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to bar poor people from using food stamps to buy sugary drinks. It’s all part of the Bloomberg-Farley health-freak duo’s plan to turn New York into a leaner, cleaner and greener place. In other words, their mission is to sanitise the city that is known and loved worldwide for its take-no-BS attitude. So, away with cars, in with bicycles; out with burgers, in with lentil patties. Last week, Bloomberg even told the United Nations General Assembly that governments’ ‘highest duty’ is to make ‘healthy solutions the default social option’.
The mayor wanted to implement the sugary-drink prohibition as a two-year experiment to see how it would affect health problems. He and Farley surmised that keeping poor people away from soda pops would ‘do more to protect people from the crippling effects of preventable illnesses like diabetes and obesity than anything else being proposed elsewhere in this country — and at little or no cost to taxpayers’.
The proposal was, however, rejected last month by the USDA, which deemed it ‘too large and complex’ to implement and evaluate. As an alternative, a representative of the Agriculture Department suggested that the city could focus on other efforts to encourage consumers to make ‘healthy choices’.
Blooomberg and Farley were disappointed, of course, at the prospect of poor people having the freedom to squander their food stamps on stuff they enjoy. And now two researchers have come to the duo’s defence. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Kelly D Brownell and Dr David S Ludwig suggested that if the federal government won’t allow elected leaders to test their theory that Americans’ health will deteriorate if poor people continue to buy sugary drinks, then it should at least conduct its own study into the matter.
But the soda-pop warriors shouldn’t get too down. After all, the USDA merely said that Bloomberg’s proposal, as it stands, would be impractical and difficult to measure, while essentially supporting the core idea behind it. Namely, the idea that city authorities should concern themselves with what New Yorkers consume, that they should ‘nudge’ people into making the right choices and discourage us from making bad ones, and that it’s up to the likes of Bloomberg and Farley to decide exactly what right and wrong is.
As New York City mayor, Bloomberg has launched wars on everything from tobacco – banning smoking in public places, including parks and beaches – to trans fats and salt. Big-chain restaurants in New York City are also now required to inform customers about calorie counts. And it’s all done for New Yorkers’ own good, of course. The presumption is that we should be reshaped into the image of the fashionably skinny, boringly clean-living, calorie-counting ruler of New York.
Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, got closer to the mark than the USDA when he said that the soda ban was not only ‘misguided and unworkable’, but was also ‘based on the false assumption that poor people were somehow ignorant or culturally deficient’. Berg sees the attempt to wean food-stamp users off soda as an attempt to ‘micromanage’ the lives of poor people. The snobby presumption here is, indeed, that low-income citizens don’t know what’s good for them or their families and that they, like children receiving pocket money, must have clear rules set for what they should or should not spend their food stamps on.
Bloomberg and his fellow health czars certainly have an unpalatable obsession with the habits of the poor. Back in 2004, for instance, the USDA rejected a request by officials in Minnesota to prevent food stamp recipients from buying junk food. And in the summer of 2008, Bloomberg introduced theGreen Cart scheme, offering a special licence for fruit and vegetable vendors to hit the streets with carts loaded with fruit and veg. The scheme targets poorer areas where there is no WholeFoods as far as the eye can see and where the preferred street grub is more likely to drip with fat rather than with smugness.
The soda-ban proposal reeks of shallow snobbery. After all, Bloomberg has not suggested a pilot to see how restricting latte intake among the middle-classes will save lives and money. This even though a wholemilk caffe latte at Starbucks, for instance, contains more calories (200 calories in 12 ounces) than a soda drink (124 to 189 calories). Even using the non-fat milk, a caffe latte still weighs in at 120 calories – and that’s without any added sugar or chocolate sprinkles.
Unfortunately, the rejection of Bloomberg’s proposal deserves at most one cheer as the insidious idea that policymakers have the right, even the duty, to take away small freedoms, to micromanage our habits and steer us in the direction of adopting the lifestyle of the clean-living killjoys at City Hall has received the official thumbs-up.
Whereas the American Constitution is virtually a paean to liberty, the Eighteenth Amendment was about taking away freedom. Today, when policymakers are claiming that elected leaders’ highest duty is to make petty, but severely agency-robbing, decisions about what we eat and how we look, it looks like the moralistic, freedom-quelling spirit of the Prohibition Era is making a comeback.