A judge struck down New York’s limits on large sugary soda drinks on Monday, just one day before they were to take effect, in a significant blow to one of the most ambitious and divisive initiatives of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure.
The mayor’s plan, which he pitched as a novel effort to combat obesity, aroused worldwide curiosity and debate. It also provoked the ire of the American soft-drink industry, which undertook a multimillion-dollar campaign to block it, flying banners from airplanes over Coney Island, plastering subway stations with advertisements and filing the lawsuit that led to the ruling.
The plan, unveiled last May, was hailed by many public health officials as a breakthrough in the effort to combat the effects of high-calorie, sugary drinks on the public’s health. The idea was to limit the size of sugary drinks for sale to 16 ounces at restaurants, theaters and food carts. Similar proposals have even been put forward in Los Angeles and Cambridge, Mass.
In an unusually critical opinion, Justice Milton A. Tingling of State Supreme Court in Manhattan called the limits “arbitrary and capricious” and decided against these rules, calling them:
- Unworkable and unenforceable: since they were to be enforced only in certain establishments, like restaurants and delis, but not others such as convenience stores and bodegas
- Confusing loopholes and voluminous exemptions: e.g. dairy-based beverages like milkshakes would be exempt
- Arbitrary and capricious rules, done by an imperial hand: i.e. the Board of Health (appointed by the mayor) had overreached in approving the plan as the City Council was the only legislative body with the power to approve such a far-reaching initiative
This ruling echoed both the complaints of consumers and city business owners: 60% of city residents said it was a bad idea and the sugar beverage industry pointed out that it would cost consumers a lot of money and unfairly hurt small businesses.
The decision comes at a sensitive time for Mayor Bloomberg, who is determined to burnish his legacy as he enters the final months of his career in City Hall. Before the judge ruled, the mayor had called for the soda limits to be adopted by cities around the globe, saying: “I’ve got to defend my children, and yours, and do what’s right to save lives. Obesity kills. There’s no question it kills.”
Lawyers for the Bloomberg administration appealed to the decision and remained confident the Board of Health (conduit through which the mayor has pushed through his boldest public health initiatives: e.g. limits on trans fats in restaurants) had the legal authority and responsibility”to address obesity in the city. Mr. Bloomberg has some experience in prevailing over legal challenges to his public health initiatives, including his requirement that fast food menus include calorie counts.
There may not be a resolution to this case before Mr. Bloomberg leaves office at the end of this year. In the meantime, coffee shops and restaurants around the city had already begun editing menus, retraining employees and warning customers of the coming changes in the sorts of drinks they could and could not buy. Dunkin’ Donuts was already no longer adding sugar to large coffees…