Soda & the State


Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths superma...

Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworths supermarket (Australia). Taken by myself. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The mayor of New York is considering a ban on selling sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces. The ban would not cover diet sodas, fruit juice, dairy products (like milkshakes) or alcohol. It also does not cover grocery or convenience stores. As might be suspected, the intent of this ban is to help combat obesity. About half of the adult population of the city is overweight and the mayor presumably hopes that this ban will help with this problem.

There are, of course, two key factual issues here. The first is whether or not the large drinks in question are a causal factor in obesity. The second is whether or not the ban would have the intended effect.

Not surprisingly, the folks in the relevant industries are claiming that the drinks are not the cause of the problem. On the one hand, it can be claimed that they are in error. After all, it does make sense that consuming large quantities of high calorie beverages (a 12 ounce soda has 124-189 calories) would contribute to people being overweight. On the other hand, it can be argued that this is not the case. After all, the drinks are not the only (or even main) source of calories and hence they are just one contributory cause among many. There is also the point that people are not compelled to consume the large beverages and people are, by in large, obese because of their choices. My considered view is that these drinks make it easier to be obese, but that it would be an error to cast them as the primary villains, so to speak.

In regards to the effectiveness of such a ban, it seems likely that the impact will be fairly minor. While people will not be able to get drinks over 16 ounces, they are not prevented from getting refills or buying as many as they want. While the 16 ounce limit will make it slightly less convenient to get a greater volume of sweet drinks, I suspect that this inconvenience factor will not be enough to impact the obesity problem. After all, people already buy multiple burgers or tacos and can probably adjust easily to getting multiple drinks. There is also the fact that the ban does not affect drinks whose calorie content can exceed that of the banned drinks and people can switch to those. For example, unsweetened apple juice has 169-175 calories per 12 ounce serving.

While the factual matters are of concern, what is of philosophical interest is whether or not the state has a right to impose such bans. As might be imagined, it is easy enough to argue for and against this right using the very same principles.

One reasonable principle is that the state has a legitimate role in preventing harm to the citizens and has a right to use its compulsive power in this capacity. The most obvious examples of this include the state’s role as a military protector and its role as the police. Another reasonable principle, taken from John Stuart Mill, is that the state does not have a right to impose on the liberty of individuals except in cases in which the individual’s actions could cause unwarranted harm to others. For example, the state clearly has a right to prevent citizens from murdering each other.

In the case of the sweet drink ban, it could be argued that the state is acting to prevent harm to the citizens and is thus operating within its legitimate rights. After all, the easy accessibility of high calorie foods in high volume servings makes it far easier for people to over-consume calories and this leads to increased obesity. Obesity presents a clear health threat to individuals as well as imposing significant costs on society (such as lost productivity and increase medical costs). As such, the state would be acting rightly in banning such sweet drinks.

One easy reply is to contend that the ban would not be effective (as argued above) and hence would be an imposition on liberty that fails to achieve its stated goal. It seems reasonable enough to accept that the state should not restrict liberty when doing so would not achieve the stated goal of the imposition-after all, the justification for the imposition would simply not be grounded.

Another reply, and the one I favor, is that even if the ban was to prove effective, it is still an illegitimate violation of liberty. The state does, of course, have a right to protect people from toxic ingredients, especially when such ingredients are not known to the consumer. To use a specific example to illustrate this, the state would be acting legitimately by banning companies from surreptitiously using lead  acetate in place of sugar as sweetener. This is because this substance is known to be toxic and most customers would not willingly consume “sweet lead.” In this case, the state would be protecting the customers from being harmed by the manufacturers. After all, companies do not have the liberty to poison ignorant customers.

In the case of the sweet drinks, the customer knows what s/he is getting: a high calorie (typically low nutrient) drink. While it is unwise and unhealthy to consume large amounts of such drinks, as long as the consumer is freely making the choice to drink the beverage and is aware of its contents and effects, then the state has no right to impose on the individual’s liberty. As usual, John Stuart Mill’s arguments in favor of liberty work quite well here. Naturally enough, the state would be well within its rights to require companies to make information about the beverages available to consumers so that they can make informed choices. However, treating adults as if they were children in this regard is not acceptable nor within the legitimate rights of the state. After all, what is solely the business of the individual is not the business of the state and how much sweet drink a person consumes would seem to be solely his or her business. The choice is thus the right of the individual, be it a good choice (to avoid sweet drinks) or a bad choice (to consume mass quantities of sugar water).

The obvious reply to this is that the harms done by obesity are not limited to the individual. Obesity increases health care costs for everyone, impacts productivity, and has other consequences that extend beyond the individual. Given that the obesity of an individual harms others, then it would seem that the state would have the right to step in and impose restrictions to counter obesity. After all, while people have every liberty to be as fat as they can and want to be, they do not have the right to expect the rest of society to also bear the consequences and costs of their poor choices.  To modify a stock line from the right in the US, why should the rest of us subsidize the cost of obesity-surely that would be a socialism of fat.  If this reasoning is plausible, then there seem to be two reasonable alternatives (and, of course, there might be others).

The first is that the state should act within its legitimate rights to endeavor to counter causal factors that significantly contribute to obesity (such as high volume high calorie beverages). The second is that individuals who wish to enjoy the liberty to be as fat as they choose to be would need to take full responsibility for the consequences of their choices. They would, for example, need to opt out of state medical support in regards to any conditions caused by or aggravated by their obesity, perhaps by purchasing special insurance. Provided that an individual was willing to eliminate the harms his/her choices would impose on others, then s/he would have the perfect right to do as s/he pleases. This is analogous to how certain states allow people to ride motorcycles without helmets provided that they have adequate insurance. Perhaps people could received special ID cards proving they have obesity insurance and  this would allow them to purchase large beverages (and other such things).

A second reply to the liberty argument is that it could be argued that the sweeteners used to create the sweet drinks is actually a toxic substance. Interestingly enough, lead acetate was once used as a sweetener until is was clearly established that it is, in fact, toxic. As such, it is not wildly implausible that the sweeteners currently in use are actually toxic substances that should be properly regulated. While it is easy enough to dismiss the idea that, for example, sugar could be toxic because it just sounds silly, it is rather important to make such assessments on the basis of scientific evidence. If sweeteners are not harmful, then an objective scientific investigation would surely show this. As such, those who think that it is silly to consider sugar and other sweeteners as toxic should insist on objective and extensive evaluation. After all, doing so would silence the rational critics of sweeteners and provide hard evidence to counter attempts to ban or restrict sweeteners and products that use them, such as sweet drinks.

My own view on the matter is that people have a right to the liberty of self-abuse (even self-destruction). However, this liberty does not allow them to impose on others. As such, the freedom to be fat comes with the responsibility to ensure that other people are not forced to bear the price that the individual alone should pay. As the hackneyed saying goes, freedom is not free-and this goes for fat freedom as well.

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  1. I wonder if taxing the percentage of added sugar per volume would be more effective than an out and out ban based on volume alone. (Though I’d pity the pricing headache for grocers and restaurants.) It leaves the consumer free to purchase whatever size drink proportional to their willingness to spend; focuses on the comparative amounts of sugar rather than volume of drink consumed, providing a tangible measurement of how sugary a drink is without having to consult the label; and it would hit people where it tends to affect them the most: the wallet.

  2. PS. and the tax could be used to fund government funded health programs and initiatives, thus alleviating the stress of other taxpayers to pay for those services.

  3. A tax on sugar based at the point of production rather than sale. Easier to administer and has the benefit of apply to all food and drink. May make producers of pizza etc think a little harder before dumping sugar in food to hide the poor actual taste of some foods

  4. michael reidy

    Health Warning on the bottles:
    You will die young and make an ugly corpse.

  5. Isn’t there a class thing here?

    I visit New York from time to time and to eat in Manhattan is incredibly expensive. In fact, the last few times I’ve been in New York I’ve given up the illusion of lunching in Manhattan and take the subway train to Queens (where my sister works), eating at an old-fashioned diner at the Continental Boulevard subway stop (recommended).

    I would imagine that low income people, without money to pay for a healthy meal or drinks, fill up on junk food and soft drinks with sugar, which are cheap.

    The wealthy (which more and more have taken over the island of Manhattan) do not drink Coca Cola.
    They can buy mineral water imported from glaciers in the Himalayas by Buddhist monks in a state of satori.

    Wouldn’t be better to subsidize a standard healthy lunch, with healthy drinks, at a fixed price and to require that all restaurants and cafes offer that lunch (or dinner) along with the healthy drinks?

  6. “the mayor presumably hopes that this ban will help with this problem.”
    I have no scientific evidence to support what I am going to say concerning the obesity problem other than what I have observed to be the nature, and habits of human beings. I accordingly feel that if the Mayor’s intentions are brought to fruition it will make no significance whatsoever to the obesity problem. Are the drinks a causal factor? Yes, but a small part of a very complex set of circumstances which in totality may be described as a cause. In my local supermarket I see many people far younger than I, of gargantuan size, filling their baskets with even more food and drink. Some have suggested that fat is now fashionable. A terrifying thought.
    Should the State intervene in this matter and how would this square with Mill’s Liberty of the individual? My understanding is that Obesity is a serious threat to health in that it can lead to life threatening conditions and death at an early age, The State has intervened in so far as smoking is concerned and in UK at least the habit of smoking is now less common. It seems to me that there are certain people who are in need of protection against themselves. Ways of life have been adopted which will lead to much suffering and premature death. This also reflects adversely on the health services of whatever country is concerned not to speak of the worry and anxiety of relatives and friends of the the people concerned. So in connection with Mill, other people are adversely affected. Somehow or the other a message has to be inculcated in that it is not smart to be fat, not smart to smoke, not smart to binge drink, until one is picked up insensible from the pavement/sidewalk and taken by the medical authorities to hospital for life saving medication and treatment. Am not sure notwithstanding the foregoing, that legislating against a life style of dedicated and unrelenting unhealthy self destruction, as opposed to destruction of others, is a viable alternative. Certain legislative restrictions can be made, but if a person is as I say determined in private to pursue a certain life style then they cannot be, should not be, prosecuted for killing themselves, or even trying to.

  7. Swallerstein,

    Yes, class could be a factor. As you note, higher income people are probably less likely to be getting a Big Gulp or a super sized soda at a fast food joint. It does seem to make a bit more sense to encourage better eating in a positive way rather than taking this negative approach.

  8. David,

    The tax could be a viable option, at least for sellers that have a computer based system for handling the till.

  9. Don,

    I agree that the measure will probably not be effective. As such, it is not only an imposition on liberty, but a needless one. People can just get refills or take multiple drinks, so the impact on consumption will be minimal. I can even imagine some upsurge in consumption as people react negatively to the imposition.

    In an interesting bit of irony, some people argue that the obese actually save the state money in the long run by dying early. On this view, the obesity of others does not harm the non-obese and hence the state should not impose on them.


    This writer makes the same point as I did, but with much more eloquence and wit, about the class prejudices behind the soft drink ban.

  11. My own observations in this matter have resulted in the formation of a hypothesis that a significant majority of the people in question are all members of the same class.
    The same goes for those I see smoking.

  12. My own observations about obesity tell me the same thing. I’m not sure about smoking.

    Until fairly recently, the poor did heavy physical work, both on the job and at home. That burned lots of calories.

    In addition, in Chile only in the last 15 years or so have the poor begun to have cars. They no longer walk to the bus stop or to the corner store. It used to be common to see low income males on their way to work on a bicycle. No longer. Now it is university students who ride bicycles.

    What’s more, the junk food restaurants have almost totally replaced those which sell cheap traditional meals: traditional Chilean meals are well-balanced in nutritive terms.

    What I see in supermarkets is frightening: mothers waiting on line with children buying quantities of treats, sweets and soft drinks for them (and for themselves) that I was only allowed to have on my birthday (if that), as a child.

    There also seems to be a question of body image perception. Friends of mine from a low income background (no longer low income) see me as “so thin”, while my doctor does not.

    There is a body image perception, among some people, generally from a low income background, that fat is healthy. That makes sense in a economy of scarcity of course, but it makes no sense in a culture where snacks are omnipresent and within the reach of everyone’s budget.

  13. Re:-swallerstein June 5
    Not wishing to become involved in a classist/racist dispute or some other such thing which so often ends in bad feeling and name calling I refrained from describing the class of which certain people in my opinion, are members. I did not specifically have in mind low income groups although some of these obviously qualify.
    There are I am sure, many decent, caring, responsible, educated people who are obese and/or smoke, but have their own private reasons for so doing. If you consider the antonyms of the four adjectives qualifying people above, you may recognise approximately the class I have in mind and it does not necessarily exclude the rich.
    Again this is merely an hypothesis I have formed so I would not hang my hat on it. I have no time, nor sufficient interest, to attempt a verification or refutation thereof, but am still interested in the viewpoints of others.

  14. Don:

    I get your point.

    Social class is a complex concept and while I am not very familiar with the sociological literature, I get the impression that social class involves more than income and wealth.

    Given that, I was mistaken in referring to low-income people, when I should have specified a series of cultural factors which are often found in low income people, but are not found in all low income peole and are found in some middle and high income people.

    Actually, in terms of income, I am almost low-income myself.

  15. Swallerstein,

    True, the switch to more sedentary occupations, decreased use of bikes/walking, and the empire of junk food have taken a toll. Traditional meals generally are better than the junk food that fast food places serve, but the fast food places generally seem to crowd out the traditional places. I drive by about a dozen fast food places on the way to work. Finding better fare takes some effort.

  16. Further thoughts on this topic lead me to think that where I used the word Class, it may be better to change this to Type. I accordingly think I am discussing a Type of person rather than a Class of person. It would still remain to ascertain the distribution of Classes within the family of Type.

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