Who banned my soda pop?
Some governments say citizens can't be trusted to make the right nutritional choices. So how far should they go in trying legislate better health?
Soda pop is the new tobacco. First banned in some school boards, soda pop and other sugar-laden drinks are now being legislated away by different levels of government in the next wave of social engineering programs. But if the state starts by substituting soya milk for Gatorade at your local arena, will it end with them telling you, you can't buy Pizza Pops?
The City of Toronto has decided that – on its own property, at least – choice is something its citizens are better off without. Hoping to prod its children into better eating habits, the city is planning to banish pop and energy drinks from vending machines in its community centres and arenas. Canada is not alone. The battle against sugar is being engaged on many levels throughout the United States. On the international level, the World Health Organization was pushing through a global strategy initiative this week.
While few will argue against targeting obesity, the public-health consensus is at odds with those who would rather make up their own minds. “To what extent do you start regulating the lives of people, so as not to hurt themselves?” asks Jack Mintz, the Palmer Chair in Public Policy at the School of Policy Studies at the University of Calgary.
Of course, as Dr. Mintz notes, public-health issues come back to hit the public purse when a country has socialized medicine. To his mind, the state should intervene in the health decisions of individuals only when they threaten the well-being of others. Beyond that, he says, attempting to change citizens' behaviour is a questionable endeavour.
“The question is, a) does the state really know that much better? and b) to what extent do we want to encourage individual responsibility, and people thinking for themselves?”
Toronto takes the lead
Nevertheless, the experiment is in play and public-health advocates across the country are watching Toronto's program with great interest.
If all goes according to plan, kids emerging from Toronto's locker rooms will be able to buy only 100-per-cent fruit juice, milk and soy-based products in 2014. (Even bottled water will be history, since the city is about to stop selling it on environmental grounds.) Most striking, though, is the plan's stringency. Toronto's bureaucrats argue that merely offering healthy choices in vending machines isn't enough – because people might make the wrong choice. And the cash-strapped city is prepared to lose tens of thousands of dollars in soft-drink revenues to make sure its good citizens don't.
“We know from our experience with vending machines that people are going to choose the soft drinks, even when you give [healthy] options,” says Brenda Patterson, the City Hall manager who is implementing the proposal. “People left to their own devices may continue to make a choice that is less healthy.”
Gatorade and Twinkies has been in politicians' crosshairs for decades.
Proposals for “fat taxes” on unhealthy products continue to be mooted at home and abroad, though an outcry forced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to retreat from the idea in 2004. Earlier this month, an Ipsos Descarie poll suggested that 77 per cent of Quebeckers would want a special tax on soft drinks, energy drinks and other sugary beverages.
Commissioned by the Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids (Coalition Poids), a group promoting weight-problem awareness, the survey found that 70 per cent of people in the rest of Canada also favour such a tax.
Ontario is rolling out new rules that would all but ban the sale of junk food in the province's schools in 2011. British Columbia did away with junk food in school vending machines in 2008. And the Squamish Nation banned ice-cream trucks from three communities on Vancouver's north shore in 2007.
And while the giant PepsiCo brand has pledged to phase pop out of schools by 2012 – globally! – a battle is brewing in Washington, D.C., over a proposed soft-drinks tax in the country's capital.
According to www.just-drinks.com
, a coalition set up by the Washington Beverage Association has called on the industry to sign a petition opposing a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. If passed, the “1-cent-per-ounce” tax will increase prices on juice drinks, flavoured waters, sports drinks and teas.
“What's truly unfortunate is that this tax would be paid by the hard-working families of the district,” the coalition said.
“This is social engineering like you've never seen,” says Justin Sherwood, president of Refreshments Canada, the industry group that represents Coke and Pepsi.
Mr. Sherwood says that, starting in 2006, Coke and Pepsi voluntarily withdrew pop from elementary schools and replaced its high-school soda selections with “low- and no-calorie” drinks.
In an earlier letter to the city, Mr. Sherwood mused, “If the City feels so compelled to dramatically limit choices of consumers, where do you go next? Ban butter, ice cream, salad dressings, chocolate bars, pizza, cookies, cream and sugar in coffee, as well as doughnuts consumed on City property?”
“If kids want a pop, they'll cross the street, go to a plaza and buy a pop,” says Rob Ford, a city councillor who is running a populist campaign for mayor.
Others asked whether limiting choice is the best way to go. There's a temptation to impose well-meaning but ultimately hypocritical restrictions on children when a community-minded approach might work better, says David Jenkins, Canada Research Chair in Nutrition at the University of Toronto.
“We take them and beat them around the gymnasium and tell them that exercise is good for them. Meanwhile, we sit back at home on the couch with a six-pack and watch other people doing physical activity on TV.
“Kids then come home and see us doing that, and realize that school is an awful place. I think that's really part of the danger,” he says.
Still, you won't get public-health advocates or, really, very many others in positions of influence arguing against Toronto's approach. “I don't know any sociologist who would take a libertarian position on a health-promotion issue like this,” Lorne Tepperman, a U of T sociology professor, wrote in an e-mail. Dr. Tepperman is the author of the forthcoming The Sense of Sociability, which examines, among other things, whether individuals need government to save them from themselves. “Who would oppose milk and fruit juice, given the growing concerns about obesity among young (and not so young) people?”
Medical thinking has been shifting away from the individual, and toward the environment. Public-health advocates argue that individuals – especially children – can't be expected to make rational food choices when they're living in a media environment that is saturated with advertising and are subjected to intensive targeted marketing. That, they say, is something that can be fixed only through government interference.
“Taking a step in the right direction, like Toronto is proposing to do, is a great idea,” says David Lau, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary and the president of the Canadian Obesity Network. “We have to bear in mind that, in the obesity epidemic, we shouldn't blame the individuals; we should blame the environment that's causing it.”
Indeed, on the same week that Toronto's city council sat down to consider the bureaucratic details of its drink-vending plan, delegates from the world's nations gathered in Geneva for a meeting of the World Health Organization's top decision-making body. On the agenda: a global plan to fight obesity by restricting the marketing of sugary drinks and fatty, salty foods to children.
“It took 50 years to put in place regulations with tobacco,” says Enrique Jacoby, an adviser on healthy eating and healthy living with the Pan-American Health Organization, a branch of the WHO. “It shouldn't take another 50 years to put in place regulations against obesity.”
If approved, the strategy would attempt to lay down global guidelines for marketing junk food to children, though the extent to which the regulations would be binding – as opposed to recommendations – has yet to be determined.
But kids may not need to be restricted so stringently. Indeed, the modern youth may already have a good grasp of the nutrition issues. Down at Toronto's Harbourfront Community Centre, teenagers gathered to play basketball gave an unequivocal take.
“Honestly, I think it's a good thing,” 18-year-old Sean Duffy says. “How many cups of sugar in each one? It's nuts. Take it off the market.”
“But fruit juice is just as bad for sugar,” one of his companions says.
The youngest one, a 13-year-old, chimes in, “But the sodium levels aren't as bad ...”
Toronto's proposal might not stop at city arenas and community centres. Adrian Heaps, a suburban councillor who brought a bag of sugar as a prop, moved to expand healthy vending rules to all city-owned facilities (and asked for a report on extending those guidelines to all “food” dispensed at those buildings). The city said no.
For Dr. Mintz, the line should be drawn where it comes to people doing harm to each other – not themselves. “I have no problem banning the use of cellphones in cars. The reason isn't the individual. It's the fact that the individual could put risks on other people.”
William Watson, a McGill University economics professor, was more puckish: “To be effective, you'd probably have to ban it totally, and enforce the ban, and police it so you don't get underground movements developing in terms of smuggling these things, or people making them in the basement by buying sugar and adding them to diet drinks.”
Moonshine soda pop. You can bet there'd be regulations on that.