THE INTRODUCTION of a ban on large sugary drinks in New York has stalled with a judge having declared it “arbitrary and capricious”. Meanwhile, the UK is facing a similar public health u-turn with the government stumbling in its bid to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol.
The government had been set to introduce the measure in next week’s budget, but reports this week suggest that the plan will be ditched. Recent proposals for a sugary drinks tax by campaigners have even less chance of feature in George Oscborne’s plans.
Experts have claimed that bold, long-term health initiatives are often defeated by a short-termist view.
In New York, the city’s mayor Michael Bloomberg, had hoped to see his controversial ban through this month. Under his plans sales of fizzy drinks and other sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces (0.5 litres) will be banned, except in supermarkets and convenience stores. Those that violate the law, including restaurants, face a $200 (£124) fine.
But in a 36-page ruling, judge Milton Tingling questioned whether such a ban could be enforced and listed inconsistencies in the plan. “The loopholes in this rule effectively defeat the stated purpose of the rule,” he wrote.
The American Beverage Association, which has been campaigning against the ban, said the ruling provides a “sigh of relief” to New Yorkers. “With this ruling behind us, we look forward to collaborating with city leaders on solutions that will have a meaningful and lasting impact on the people of New York City.”
However, experts watching the story develop in the US, drew comparisons between the fizzy drinks ban and minimum alcohol pricing. Speaking to Footprint, Sean Roberts, policy director at the Food Ethics Council, said the last minute u-turn in New York “confirms what a political hot potato the healthy eating agenda is. Here on our side of the Atlantic, we look set for a similar politically-driven reverse, with rumours that the government is to ditch its plans for a minimum price on alcohol – plans which were themselves originally motivated by the government’s desire to be seen to be doing something on ‘problem drinking’.
“Given the overwhelming evidence of the adverse health, social justice and environmental impacts of our current patterns of food and drink consumption, we desperately need an approach based on a long-term vision for the food system, not on short-term political expediency,” he added.
Others said that judge Tingling’s ruling was just the first stage in what would be a protracted battle through the courts. “Mayor Bloomberg has faced similar situations with smoking and food labelling [regulations] but he still pursued them,” said Martin Caraher, professor of food health and health policy at City University London.
Bloomberg, who has overseen a number of groundbreaking and controversial public health policies – from banning smoking in workplaces, to requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts and banning trans fats – said that “being the first to do something is never easy”.
He explained: “When we began this process, we knew we would face lawsuits. Anytime you adopt a groundbreaking policy, special interests will sue. But we strongly believe that, in the end, the courts will recognise the Board of Health's authority to regulate the sale of beverages that have virtually no nutritional value, and which – consumed in large quantities - are leading to disease and death for thousands of people every year.”
Consumer polls regarding the ban have been mixed, but other areas of the US are considering bans. In California, 68% of voters would support a sugary soda tax, but only if the revenue was distributed to nutrition and fitness programmes in schools. This is a similar proposal to that put forward in the UK last month.
The chances of the tax, which has also been backed by doctors, being included in next week’s budget are slim. There are growing concerns that a minimum price for alcohol, which has been backed by the prime minister for some time, could be ignored too.