What's really behind the soda industry's 'choice' rhetoric

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Last week, following New York City's public hearing on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to cap soda sizes at 16 ounces, industry reps and other critics pushed back hard, saying the ban on large portions "restricts choice." The trouble is, those critics don't explain whose choice is really being restricted. And that's because the answer is soda companies'.

Soda companies have long enjoyed extensive freedom over what products they create, market and sell, regardless of the social cost of their choices. In the 1950s, they chose to bottle their sugary beverages in 6.5-ounce containers, touting them as an occasional treat. Today, soda companies choose to inflate portions to 20 ounces and beyond, pushing sales of these oversized drinks by making sure they are cheap and always within arms' reach. Soda companies choose to continually expand their product lines, creating sugar-infused teas and sugary sports drinks; they've even added sugar and calories to water, in spite of research that links sugar-laden beverages to chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease. They choose to market these unhealthy products disproportionately to low-income communities, communities of color, and youth. And now, in the face of growing public criticism, soda companies are choosing to borrow marketing tactics from the tobacco industry to improve their image and avoid government regulation.

So when soda industry spokespeople and executives argue that Bloomberg's proposal restricts choice, they need to be specific. It restricts industry's choice. It forces soda companies to be accountable to the public, rather than freely allowed to exploit the public. And it puts the public's health ahead of profits, taking a little power away from major corporations and putting it back in the hands of ordinary people.

The public's response to Bloomberg's proposal suggests this shift in power is exactly what people want. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, of the 38,000 written comments the department received regarding the proposal, 32,000 were in support. Looks like people are seeing soda companies' "choice" rhetoric for what it really is: a thinly veiled scare tactic.


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