New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks was heavily debated at a public hearing Tuesday at the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Long Island City, Queens.
The mayor, while not present, has been at the heart of the debate since May, when he announced he wanted to ban the sale of any sugary, nondairy beverage greater than 16 ounces at New York City restaurants, delis, movie theaters and street carts. The ban would not apply to grocery or convenience stores.
According to the Health Department, more than half of New York City adults are overweight, and more than 20% of the city's children (in grades K-8) are obese.
The department argues that sugary beverages go hand-in-hand with obesity. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of sugar in the average American's diet, with nearly 43% of added sugar intake, the department says.
A 20-ounce sugary soft drink contains the equivalent of 16 packets of sugar, according to the Health Department.
"What this proposal is about at its core is the health of New Yorkers," New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who supports the ban, said Tuesday.
Experts, advocates, surrogates and elected officials who are for and against the ban all gathered for the hearing, whose purpose was simply to let members of the public express their views.
"I'm ashamed to be here, that we have to discuss the size of fountain drinks in the city of New York," said Queens council member Daniel Halloran. "The proposed ban is a clear intrusion into the rights of New Yorkers and represents a situation where government regulation has gone too far."
"Soda is not inherently bad for you. Drugs, alcohol or cigarettes are far worse," Halloran said. "... Many responsible, healthy New Yorkers choose to consume soda in moderate amounts on certain occasions such as at a movie or a baseball game."
David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, spoke in support of the ban.
"Government has a compelling interest in preventing obesity and its complications, which justifies limiting the size of sugary drinks in food service establishments," said Jones. "While banning supersized sugary drinks alone won't do the job, it's a step in the right direction."
"This is not about taking away people's rights. It is about placing a sensible limit on the portion size of a substance that has shown to have no nutritional value and to pose a serious threat to health," said Shira Gans, policy analyst for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.
Soda companies, beverage unions and the National Restaurant Association have all fought back.
"This is another example of New York's consistent targeting of restaurants for excessive regulation in recent years, placing bureaucratic mandates and a letter-grade health inspection system on the industry that even some City Council members have called unfair and inconsistent," Joy Dubost, director of nutrition and healthy living at the National Restaurant Association, testified.
The city's Board of Health will vote on the ban in September; it would take effect 180 days after approval. Some City Council members are outraged that they have no say in the vote.
Some celebrities have flocked to Bloomberg's side in support, including Alec Baldwin, Spike Lee, Barbara Walters, Mario Batali and former President Bill Clinton, who told CNN's Piers Morgan, "I know a lot of people think this is a 'nanny state,' but there are very serious problems."