Soda and the Nanny State

On Tuesday, March 12, on the day before it was scheduled to go into effect, a state judge struck down New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on jumbo-sized sodas, triggering a paroxysm of editorials about the nanny state and the future of civilization.

OK, everybody, let’s take a deep breath.

I hate the nanny state as much as you do, but that dislike comes with an asterisk.

See, it’s not the idea of regulation per se that I dislike. It’s the fact that the government is a bumbling mess, gets few things right and tends to eventually screw up the few things they do get right–like Medicare and the VA. So the last thing I want is a bunch of government bureaucrats telling me what I can eat, who I can sleep with, what I can smoke, who I can marry, what my female friends can do with their bodies, or any of a dozen other things they have no business telling me to do (or not do).

But I- like many fellow nanny-state-haters on both sides of the aisle–sing a very different tune about government when a Hurricane Katrina appears or a bumbling terrorist tries to light his underwear on fire on a 747. We’re perfectly happy that there are rules and regulations that prevent our neighbors from erecting a 10 foot monument to the KKK on the town square, or a local factory from pumping mercury into the air, or a strip club from opening next door to St. John’s Cathedral. We want government oversight and regulation when it protects us from what we want to be protected from. When it “protects” us from what we don’t want to be protected from, we’d prefer it to leave us the heck alone, thank you very much.

And we like government least of all when it interferes with our personal liberty.

Which brings us to the heart of the soda problem.

Look, I get the whole “personal liberty” argument. Really, I do. I listen to Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager. I love Jon Stewart. There are times when, if I squint, even Ron Paul seems to make sense for a minute, particularly when he gets started on the idiocy of the government preventing me from consuming raw milk. I even understand the sentiment behind the slippery slope argument (today our soda, tomorrow our guns!) Believe me, I get it.

So in a perfect world, we’d have as little government interference as possible.

But this is very far from that perfect world. And in the world we actually live in, we’re being poisoned by sugar.

Despite the massive protests and multi-milliondollar campaigns by the sugar Industry, the Corn Refiners Association and others to convince us that sugar is a perfectly harmless substance that can be incorporated “in moderation” in a healthy diet, the truth is very different. Sugar is an addictive substance that we consume to the tune of 150 pounds per capita per year, and it’s destroying our health and destroying our children.

And we have two basic choices. We can fail to act, citing the sanctity of personal freedom and the encroachment of the dreaded nanny-state… or we can do something.

This isn’t the place to go over the massive evidence that sugar is the culprit in the American diet. For those who didn’t get the memo, I recommend the terrific new book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us“, Dr. Robert Lustig’s brilliant, “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease“, (or his lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” on youtube), or- if you just want to get your feet wet, Mark Bittman’s wonderfully clear and pithy “Regulating Our Sugar Habit” in the NY Times a few weeks ago. Even a superficial look at the literature will convince all but the most entrenched supporters of Big Food that sugar–and it’s nearly-identical twin, high-fructose corn syrup–are not innocent bystanders in the  skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We’re not fat, sick, tired and depressed because they took phys ed out of the school system or because everyone watchs too much television. Sure those things matter, but they pale in comparison to the effect of mainlining a deadly white substance which literally creates hormonal havoc and appetite dysregulation, all the while promoting metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

What to do, what to do?

Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, and when it comes to sugar, these are desperate times indeed.

The defenders of personal freedom who are applauding the strikedown of the Bloomberg initiative would be appalled at the suggestion that heroin dealers be allowed to peddle their wares in schoolyards. Yet these same folks bristle at the mere suggestion of regulations which would make it even marginally more difficult for sugar pushers to do the same thing. These champions of “personal liberty” tell us that regulations don’t take the place of parenting– that keeping kids out of McDonald’s should be the job of parents, not the government. (I often wonder if the people making this argument actually have kids, and if they do, I wonder if they live in the real world. But I digress.) None of these good folks would ever agree to having crack cocaine sold in their kids’ school cafeteria because to ban it would be an affront to personal liberty, and because  “it should be the goal of good parenting” to keep kids from buying this stuff in the first place.

Look, back in the late 90’s I worked for Coca Cola for a year, during the time they introduced Dasani water. I sat on the advisory board for Dasani, wrote articles about the benefits of purified water, and worked closely with a lot of execs from Coke. They were nice people. Really. But as a corporation, they’re selling death. Seriously. And they’re selling it to children, and they’ve sold it to us, and there’s no getting around the fact that the stuff they–and other soda manufacturers are selling–is a wildly destructive substance with no redeeming qualities that is destroying the health of America and any other nation in which they can get a foothold.

Are the soda makers the only culprits? Hell, no. (And they’ll be the first to tell you so!) But they’re a damn good place to start.

Did the Bloomberg proposal have faults? You bet. Did it have loopholes? Sure. Would it present an enforcement nightmare? Probably, although not nearly as bad as critics have suggested.

But does that mean we sit back and do nothing?

No. We’re up against a serious enemy here folks, and it’s name is sugar. In all it’s forms, including the kind that’s marketed as healthy (agave nectar syrup anyone?) . Including the stuff that turns into sugar in a heartbeat, also marketed as healthy (breakfast candy? I mean, cereal?)

Because there is no perfect intervention does that mean we don’t intervene at all?

Sure, making it illegal to sell obscenely sized vats of sugar and chemicals is a logistical nightmare, fraught with problems and far from ideal.

But it’s a start.

I have huge qualms about giving our government more power than it already has over what we can put into our bodies–particularly when that government has demonstrated jaw-dropping stupidity when it comes to nutrition in general. But whenever I think that the “solution” is worse than the problem, I remember how bad sugar really is and what it’s doing to our health, our well-being and ultimately, even our national security.

And then I remember something that’s served me well to remember in a lot of endeavors, something that is a great antidote to my–and others’–natural tendency toward inaction in the face of what seems like an insurmountable problem:

“The greatest enemy of a good plan is the search for a perfect one”.

Is the Bloomberg initiative a perfect plan? Far from it.

But right now it’s all we’ve got, and it’s better than nothing. And man, we better start somewhere.

Why not here?

SHARE IT: Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestGoogle+Share on StumbleUpon


  • Claudio Rivera

    Great post!

  • Mary

    Well spoken Dr. Bowden. I don’t leave in the US, so l cannot speak for the US citizens. But l think the sugar thing has become a world thing/problem. At least in the US you can dare to challenge a Government. In certain countries, cooperates such Coca-cola take the lead, the Government follows. I wish it could become an international problem rather than a government via-a-vis the coca-cola company. Individuals and more so adult population must make it their business as to what their kids eat/drink/socialize, etc. Shops that sell this type of product must not be allowed to use the school grounds or nearby. My idea.

    Otherwise, good luck.

  • Extremely well put and helpful! There are 2 separate debates here: “How much government regulation is appropriate?” and “If we agree that government should regulate certain things, is sugar one of them?” To me it is very clear – if you believe that government should impose regulation on substances like alcohol and tobacco, then it most certainly can and must do the same for sugar!

  • Deborah Marcus, C.N.C.

    Your discussion on this dire matter is compelling, but I question:
    What do you mean by stating that “we better start somewhere” and “why not here”? Where is here, on your post?

  • Mac

    Well said! Thanks.

  • Teri Carnevale

    Excellent article….so true so really true…sugar is the monkey on our back, unfortunately, many parents find it easier to give their children a soda at a meal instead of discussing the benefits of good ol’ clean water…I get it, everyone is tired after a long day, it’s easier to give in. Perhaps taking baby steps by eliminating these sugar laden sodas, then maybe replacing fruit by the loop with real fruit, walking to and from school, etc, etc, small steps….We as an society also have to take personal reponsiblity. It’s easier and cheaper once you get started.

  • Jonny,

    I really love the book, “The Cholesterol Myth”. Bought 3 of ’em. I’m not a doctor, just a small businessman, who has never bought into the whole Cholesterol panic. I also love the fact that you’re taking on the medical industrial complex. You noted in this blog that you thought women should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies. And you believe that Coca-Cola is selling “death” in the form of sugar, and should be restrained. I urge you, to extend the same zeal to the medical industry ignoring the abortion/breast cancer link. The same fudging of studies you cite regarding cholesterol is taking place with studies regarding abortion and breast cancer. The first study to link lung cancer and tobacco was concluded in the 1920’s. The first surgeon general’s warning came in the 1960’s and the AMA was not on board. Same with this tragedy.

    I love your work on cholesterol. Please extend the same concern over women’s health regarding abortion, because women are dying because they are told “do what you want…it’s your body”. (There’s much, much, much more evidence of physical and emotional damage, but this will have to do for now).

    Best wishes on your continued success in the area of exposing the Cholesterol myth.

    Jim Ball

  • Guy

    I like being able to choose for myself whether to drink a soda, which kind, and how large a soda I want to drink.

    • I do too Guy! But I am not sure I can always exercise that choice responsibly. But that is my problem and I am dealing with it and I hold no one but myself responsible. The question is, do you think children should have that choice? My better self likes the idea of someone saying: “Hey, one person drinking this much soda in one sitting is NOT OK.” Personally I don’t think the ban on serving size is the best idea but it is better than nothing. I would much rather see a big assed warning that on all servings sold from any location that says: “Consuming soda is harmful to your health and has been linked to Diabetes, Cancer, Heart Disease and Alzheimers.” I would also like to see “Not for sale to persons under the age of 18.” And then you can go ahead and make your own choices.

  • Gigi

    I’m with you on this, Jonny. Not perfect but it may make one aware of how much sugar they are consuming….especially if they go for another 16oz serving – and maybe, maybe something will click and they will become aware of what they are consuming and start to cut back.

  • Doug

    There was a time when producers of sweets coated their sweets with red oxide. They did it because it made the sweets very attractive to children – a brilliant red colour. However, red oxide is very toxic (even to touch it). I am glad that manufactures were stopped from this practice. There are so many things we now accept that were once fiercely resisted – like the abolition of slavery. How many people today are prepared to argue that slavery was abolished by a nanny state? (I was also going to give an example of gun control in Australia – but this is such a sensitive issue in the USA that I’ll leave it). Is a young child (or an adult for that matter) really free to make informed choices when they are bombarded by advertising propaganda, free samples and so on? When I was young, Type 2 diabetes was called ‘senile diabetes’, then it was called ‘late-onset diabetes’. Sadly, today, we are seeing teenagers with wrecked pancreases. Libertarians say: Let people choose to eat unhealthy foods if that is what they want – its their choice – their life. There are two problems with this. Whatever we do in life, affects other people. Expect to see much higher health insurance premiums and taxes in the future – which will result in less freedom for people to do the things they would like to do through lack of funds (even by people who choose to live a healthy life). Secondly, bad health in itself is detrimental to freedom.

  • matthew

    While I do not agree with all of your points, I agree something needs to be done immediately regarding sugar and GMO’s.

    The corn/sugar lobby is too strong and too big for our company to get control of the current obesity epidemic and it appears the FDA is concerned about the public’s welfare.

    • Doug

      Lots of people think “something needs to be done” but then baulk at regulation. “Something needs to be done” equals regulation. Vested interests are certainly not going to do it voluntarily. People all over the world have recently been badly hurt by poorly regulated economies. Have their lives been enriched by market systems that were so free that it enabled the greedy to prey on the vulnerable?

  • My kids do like soda, regular and diet, although they don’t drink a ton of it. They also like fruit juice, chocolate milk, and, thankfully, water. Any ideas on healthy substitutes for the sugary drinks?

  • Josh

    Huge fan of Dr. Bowden, but not of Mayor Bloomberg. I look at it in a similar way as the ongoing debate about the 2nd Amendment, which he has also tried to go after. The intentions are good, but it often ends up trampling on personal freedom. So all I can do is accept personal responsibility for my own actions. I made myself obese years ago from my bad choices; I had to get out of the hole that I dug for myself. That’s what it takes.

  • dan birk

    It’s a slippery slope. There are other ways.

  • I’m with you on this, Jonny. Not perfect but it may make one aware of how much sugar they are consuming….especially if they go for another 16oz serving – and maybe, maybe something will click and they will become aware of what they are consuming and start to cut back. – See more at:

  • ’m with you on this, Jonny. Not perfect but it may make one aware of how much sugar they are consuming….especially if they go for another 16oz serving – and maybe, maybe something will click and they will become aware of what they are consuming and start to cut back.

Leave a Reply