Smith: Hard fight over soft drinks

It happened that I was in New York City during last week’s holiday, and the citizens there were pretty riled up about the issue it naturally raised.

I’m not speaking of Memorial Day and the debate over America’s global military presence. Maybe you missed the fact that Friday was National Donut Day. (This sort of content is why you still need a newspaper, folks. But that’s a different column.) This strikes me as a sweet coincidence for the hullabaloo over Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s attempt to slightly reduce sugar consumption in the Big Apple.

For a guy inarguably successful in politics, Bloomberg sometimes reveals a tin ear. How else can we explain the timing of his proposal to ban sales of plus-sized sodas in city movie theaters, restaurants, stadiums, arenas and mobile food carts?

Only a guy who isn’t running for anything this year would attack sugar, Americans’ food of choice, just as we focus on our favorite pastry.

Bloomberg’s idea is based on research showing that Americans on average are consuming 300 calories per day more than 30 years ago, the biggest share of the increase coming from sugary drinks. Put all those extra calories alongside our increasingly sedentary lifestyle — starting with kids spending the summer playing video games instead of Little League baseball — and you get an obesity epidemic that costs and kills.

For some folks, certainly, extra weight is a hereditary thing. But for an increasing share of Americans, it has become a lifestyle choice.

Bloomberg’s ban would apply to any sweetened drink larger than 16 ounces. For those of you accustomed to different fluid measures, that’s the equivalent of a pint of Guinness, which comparatively is a health beverage.

Of course, you could still drink 32 ounces of Mixed Berry Slurpee, if that’s your preference, but halfway through the joy of it all, you would have to levitate and ambulate — that is, get up and walk — to get a refill. That, you know, also would be good for your health. But I don’t want to be pushy here.

This must be, after all, a matter of personal choice. That’s what many people are asserting. So if I want to overdose on Dr. Pepper until my teeth rot and my belly flab creates a zipper malfunction, it’s my business.

Except that I would be making you help pay for it, and I don’t mean only in the psychic toll that image just imposed upon your mental health.

An obese man racks up an extra $1,152 a year in medical costs, an obese woman an extra $3,613, according to Lehigh University research. Since the percentage of obese Americans has tripled since 1960, that totals an additional $190 million a year nationally. In all, obesity adds about 20 percent a year to medical bills.

And who pays? Not us, at least not individually.

If you’re lucky enough to have an employer who covers part of your health insurance, your overweight coworkers are contributing disproportionately to rising premiums — dollars that might instead have gone to wages, or maybe kept some of your laid-off colleagues on the payroll.

If you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, your soda is part of my tax bill. (Thank you very much.)

There are other costs. Obese workers miss more work and can’t work to what would otherwise be their full capacity, which saps $36 billion a year in economic productivity, according to Duke University research. Cars burn a billion gallons of gasoline more a year than they would if we weighed what we did 50 years ago.

Mind you, all this wouldn’t be much affected by what many people are calling the “nanny state” plan of New York’s mayor. But more far-reaching efforts to encourage healthy living habits have gotten no traction at all.

Meanwhile, we impose all sorts of laws to save money and lives. We criminalize certain drugs, restrict smoking and set speed limits. In this state, if it’s raining hard enough to require windshield wipers, the law demands that you turn on your headlights. We tolerate all those, even welcome some.

But limiting the size of cups and bottles of Coke? Whoa. They’ll be coming for the donuts next. That’ll be a fight to witness.

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