Mayor Bloomberg’s hard line on soft drinks has beverage industry shook up

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large sodas put big beverage companies back on the defensive this week — an increasingly familiar spot for the industry.

Anti-obesity advocates have homed in on soft drinks over roughly the past five years, and Bloomberg described his proposal as a way for the city to take immediate action to curb obesity. He wants to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces at restaurants and movie theaters.

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Bloomberg’s controversial plan is just the latest in a long string of proposed soft drink taxes and regulations, including brief discussions of a federal soda tax during the debate over healthcare reform.

“Certainly, there are some lawmakers who would unjustifiably assign most of the blame for the obesity rate to soft drinks,” said Chris Gindlesperger, director of public affairs at the American Beverage Association.

The beverage industry has successfully beaten back every proposal to tax or otherwise restrict sugary drinks — and it has shelled out millions of dollars in the process.

The American Beverage Association spent nearly $13 million lobbying against a proposed soda tax in New York state in 2010 — one of the highest totals ever for a single group in a single year, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The beverage association’s federal lobbying skyrocketed when congressional Democrats floated the idea of a soda tax in healthcare negotiations. The group spent nearly $19 million lobbying Congress in 2009, compared with less than $1 million the year before.

“Taxes is one place where industry has drawn a line in the sand and is willing to spend any amount of money,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Bloomberg’s latest proposal isn’t a tax, but rather an outright ban on large sodas in many places. The initial reception has been negative: The New York Times editorialized against the plan last week, and even Bloomberg’s supporters in Congress said the proposal goes too far.

“We do have an obesity problem, but where do we draw the line?” asked Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), a Brooklyn liberal who served in the New York City Council for the first five years of Bloomberg’s term.

It may be difficult for the beverage industry to fight the ban. Bloomberg doesn’t need legislative approval to implement it — only the approval of a health board he controls.

But Jacobson, who supports the ban, said the policy won’t necessarily make it easier for other states and cities to crack down on sugary drinks.

“I think legislative progress on soft drinks is going to be real tough,” he said.

Various campaigns to tax or limit access to soda might not pass, but Jacobson said they’re helping to educate the public, and that he expects to see the market for soda decline over the next several years.

Bloomberg’s proposed ban isn’t the only hit the beverage industry has taken lately. An Institute of Medicine report last month proposed “prohibiting access to sugar-sweetened beverages” in schools, among other steps to curb the intake of soda and other sweetened beverages.

First Lady Michelle Obama has also drawn attention to the obesity issue through her “Let’s Move” campaign. The American Beverage Association worked with Obama to voluntarily add calorie counts to the front of its products’ labels.

Gindlesperger said soft drinks have been unfairly targeted in the campaign against obesity, leading to “short-sighted proposals” like Bloomberg’s that, he said, “won’t make an ounce of difference.”