Classism and Bloomberg’s Beverage Ban

Last week, the media picked up NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to ban eateries from selling sugary soft drinks in single quantities larger than 16 ounces.  The soft drink ban is the Mayor’s latest battle in a war on unhealthiness that has included public smoking bans and compulsory calorie content postings on fast food menus.

I am moved to say that I like Bloomberg’s initiative, including this latest plan, but it is probably more important for me to relate the public reaction than my own personal opinion.

Politically, in America, I expect any restriction on free trade to be somewhat controversial, especially if that restriction is a partial ban on something as mainstream and beloved as soda.  In Texas, I expect Mayor Bloomberg would not only be impeached, but hog-tied, publicly ridiculed, and force-fed Mr. Pibb until his eyeballs exploded, for proposing such blaspheme.  But New York does not live in America, and early press coverage seems to show that New Yorkers, while mixed, are mostly mild on the question of the sixteen ounce ceiling.  I have found none of the far-right ranting attacks on the policy that I expected; the closest thing to an attack from the right revolves around the “Nanny Bloomberg” movement, which lost most of its bite when it incorporated the word “nanny” into its title.  I appreciate the relative maturity of the reactions I have read, because zealous rants about all that Ayn Rand shit bore me.  What interests me most are the questions of class that Bloomberg’s proposed policy brings to mind.

So, first, I will ask, is this a classist policy?

Yes.  The definition of classism is prejudice for or against a particular class group (personally, I prefer the term “class-conscious”), and since this policy will impact poor people differently (or more) than it will wealthy people, it can confidently be described as classist.  But we must not make the mistake of assuming that any class-conscious policy is unfounded or negative for society.  This flawed thinking is often why people believe affirmative action is wrong (argue what you will about affirmative action in the modern context, but the principles behind it are sound).  Many of America’s most celebrated laws were racist in the sense that they favored minority groups over whites, as a means of counteracting existing de facto or de jure racism that was working against those minority groups.  With the “everyone should be treated equally” ideal in mind, opposition to these laws is understandable, but it does not hold up to reality, in which people suffer due to societal discrimination that requires government intervention for remedy.  Accepting this, we must now ask if Bloomberg’s policy is warranted by the circumstances of obesity amongst poor people in New York City and whether or not the policy will, in fact, help those people.

Although poor families in the U.S. may be better off from a material standpoint than their disadvantaged counterparts in Western Europe, America’s poorer families suffer immensely in a number of areas, including health and education.  Poor physical health – obesity, in this case – is largely a symptom of poverty, due mostly to the high price of healthy food and the  poor diet that results.  It is a problem that compounds itself in several ways and can even lead to further poverty.  What’s worse is that, while overall national childhood obesity rates fall, they are actually rising amongst poorer American children.  So, because soda consumption contributes to weight gain and obesity, and because obesity rates can clearly be divided by income level, it is obvious that we are observing a class-sensitive issue, for which class conscious legislation is appropriate.

So, will Bloomberg’s law help?

One article in the Atlantic Wire thought no, and complained that the policy will place a large financial burden on poor people, who can’t afford to buy two small sodas instead of one big one.  The Wire’s simple point should not be ignored.  For all of our grand talk about health and education, could this end up being just one more expense that our poorest citizens have to dig for when they just want a goddamned extra large soda after working a long day?

Maybe, but we should keep in mind that The Wire is only looking at a part of the equation when they assert that poor people are the financial victims of this policy.  The financial ramifications of the shift of supply and demand that will take place when soda quantities are capped could just as easily end up encouraging people to spend less on soda, in which case the law would take a satisfying swipe at large beverage companies that have been profiting in exchange for poisoning us with high fructose corn syrup for too long.  In fact, the soda lobby is spending big to oppose this plan, suggesting that their research shows the result of Bloomberg’s ban will be less soda sold, not more.  If the ban results in people spending less money on unhealthy products, then I would say the plan sounds good.  So, in answer to my own question, yes, provided projections for how much weight could be lost by cutting down on soda are somewhere near correct and provided poor people don’t soda themselves into homelessness, I would say the plan might definitely help.

Going back to the comparison with affirmative action, I readily admit that depriving poor people of large sodas does not sound as altruistic as giving inner city kids a shot at a secondary education, but if the ban results in economically disadvantaged people spending less of the little money they do have on products that will make them more unhealthy, then I would say the plan sounds good.  What we cannot forget to do, though, is to frame this issue in the big picture of poverty and health in America.

My real complaint about Bloomberg’s is that it skirts the real issue:  Poor people get shitty educations and can afford neither to provide a positive education and learning environment to their children nor healthy food for them to eat.  Drinking smaller sodas may shave a few pounds off some inner-city kids, but it will do little to educate and empower them.  In many senses, the Mayor’s logic on this policy is arbitrary (why not ban large diet sodas that are linked to cancer?  Or energy drinks that supply far more than a healthy day’s caffeine allowance?), and while I (obviously) don’t think the benefits of good health should be underestimated, New York’s poorest citizens, like America’s poorest citizens, need better education, better access to healthcare, and a larger share of our GDP before they need to be told what size Pepsi they can order.  Addressing a problem as emblematic as obesity with ad hoc bans on unhealthy foods is, at best, an over-simplified approach and, at worst, hubristic and neglectful governing.  As a way of chipping away at the profits of companies who benefit from the sale of items that cause people to suffer in the long-run, I think the ban is fine, but as a response to growing disparities in health between the classes, it is insufficient, to say the least.

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