As we reported earlier, the Board of Health approved a plan to restrict the sale of sugary drinks today, voting 8-0 with one abstention. As of March, sugar-sweetened drinks in cups larger than 16 ounces will not be allowed in "fast-food joints, movie houses and Broadway theaters, workplace cafeterias and most other places selling prepared food,” according to Bloomberg. It was an "historic" meeting, as Health Commissioner Thomas Farley put it—one in which the board's integrity seemed to be at stake as much as any huge soda containers.
Even before the meeting began, members of Bloomberg's team handed out a 36-page document filled with various statements in support of the soda ban—that included city council members (Gale Brewer, Brad Lander, Jessica Lappin, Daniel Dromm, Margaret Chin), state senators (Daniel Squadron, Gustavo Rivera), filmmakers (Spike Lee), Sports Illustrated columnists (Peter King), authors (Eric Schlosser), chefs (Jamie Oliver), weight loss programs (CEO of Jenny Craig, founder of The South Beach Diet, president of Weight Watchers) and tons of others (Ed Koch, Geoffrey Canada, Bill Clinton, etc).
In general, the mood in the room was one of inevitability—but if this was definitely going to pass, why place so much emphasis on trying to convince us that people supported the measure? The board noted that they received over 38,000 public comments on this initiative; out of that, approximately 32,000 were in favor, with only 6,000 against. By that reckoning, the vast majority of NYC is already in favor of the measure. So why waste all that paper?
The reason seemed to be that the board was afraid of headlines like DNAInfo's ("Ban on Large Sodas Rubber-Stamped by Board of Health"), and specifically the notion that the board is Bloomberg's to manipulate and direct as he feels is necessary. Eliot Hoff, spokesman for NYers for Beverage Choices, told us before the vote that Bloomberg had "chutzpah" telling people how much lemonade they should or shouldn't be allowed to drink. Hoff was also sure that the ban would pass: "This is a political vote today, approved by the mayor...the board is rubberstamping the mayors policy."
There's that word: board members took serious offense at the notion that they were merely "rubberstamping" on behalf of the mayor. Depending on what side you were on, the whole presentation leading up the vote was either an attempt to prove how thorough and unbiased the members were, or it was the board's attempt to cover their bases in case anyone accused them of being Bloomberg's unthinking tools.
The meeting included a nearly 30 minute powerpoint presentation that dealt almost exclusively with criticisms from those 6,00 negative public comments, dismantling each of their arguments. There was little in the way of explaining exactly how the ban will be enforced, though there were casual mentions to "calorie thresholds" without future explanations. Instead, most of the next hour was spent giving each board member a chance to pontificate about the seriousness of the obesity epidemic, and why the board had "an obligation" to support the measure, as Dr. Joel Forman put it.
"Obesity as a crisis is overwhelming," Forman said. "I can't imagine the board not acting on some other problem that was killing 5,000 people a year." That seemed to be the general feeling of the board, with Dr. Marlon Brewer adding: "This is one step toward what we need to do." Dr. Lynne Richardson said she was skeptical before hearing the initial proposal, but was convinced by the final presentation: "the scientific evidence suggests that the benefits of this proposal far outweigh the burdens that would be imposed on the industry and members of the public." She also chastised critics:
The language used by many of the opponents of the proposal included a degree of hyperbole that was stunning. I've served on the board for quite some time, I was here for the trans fat ban and calorie counting and restaurant grading and a number of other initiatives, and this really rivaled the most extreme distortions of what was actually proposed.
IMG 5059 from Gothamist on Vimeo.
Several others (including Dr. Susan Klitzman in the clip above) commented on the negativity of the media. Brewer had this to say:
I happened to overhear a reporter make an offhand comment that said as follows: 'The board is expected to rubberstamp this proposal.' And I was really struck by that. And I really think what we just heard around the table was not that at all...I think that really does an injustice to the thoughtfulness of what my colleagues have had to say. And if we think this is just a rubberstamping, then we really havent understood what's going on here.
Richardson echoed that: "I did not hear that comment about rubberstamping. I don't think anyone who knows us, or some of my other colleagues, would ever accuse us of being docile followers and of not arriving at our own decision about anything that is put before us."
The only member who went against the grain was Dr. Sixto Caro, who questioned the economic impact on small businesses and families: "I'm still skeptical. Even though this is a step in the right direction...it's not comprehensive as an intervention." Despite his reservations, Caro wouldn't officially vote against the measure—he instead chose to abstain.