A step toward better health

A step toward better health

September 17th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The New York City Board of health approved a rule late last week that will ban the sale of large - more than 16 ounces - sodas (that's soft drinks in this part of the country) and other sugary drinks in restaurants, theaters and delis beginning in March. Approval pleased and angered, it seems, an equal number of individuals. The former believe the ban will improve community health; the latter chafe at what they call as unnecessary Big Brother intrusion. Whatever the case, the ban and its possible effects deserve close study in coming months and years.

If, as many medical professionals and nutritionists suspect, the ban leads to healthier eating choices, it could prompt similar legislation elsewhere. Area and regional lawmakers and residents, in fact, should follow such studies closely. Tennessee and neighboring states are in the obesity-diabetes-high-blood-pressure belt of the nation, and indication that improved health is a result of the ban will quickly draw attention. How could it not?

If a ban eventually leads to better community health, public officials in Tennessee and elsewhere should consider following suit. They would have to contend with those who oppose government intrusion in their daily lives, but that should not halt the effort. There's good reason to take such a step.

Any improvement in public health could prompt significant cost savings for the state and its residents. Both currently spent enormous amounts to treat obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other maladies directly related to poor diet, and especially the consumption of high-calorie but nutritionally empty drinks and foods. Improvements in diet should lead to fewer illnesses, a better quality of life for individuals and a reduction in spending -- all desirable outcomes.

It may be difficult, however, to connect the ban on sugary products with improved health for New York City residents. The ban is not inclusive. It covers only establishments -- restaurants, theaters, stadiums, etc. -- that are inspected by the health board. Convenience stores, vending machines and some stand-alone sites that sell the products are not covered. Moreover, there's nothing in the rules that prohibits someone in, say, a fast-food restaurant from purchasing a 12-ounce drink and then refilling it two or three times during a meal. But while it might be difficult to fully calculate benefits of the ban, few believe there will be none.

Americans have increased their daily caloric intake by 200-to-300 calories since the mid-1970s even as they've become far more sedentary. The combination of more calories and less exercise is dangerous and, in many cases, deadly. A ban on large-sized sugary drinks in one city - even the nation's largest - won't resolve the problem, but it can help.

Hopefully, New York City's action will energize conversation about poor nutrition and the culture - lack of education, the high cost of feeding a family, food deserts, etc. - that contribute to obesity. Indeed, it already has done so if the amount of newsprint, air time and space on the social media devoted to the ban recently is a reliable measuring stick. Such talk is not only informative, it can be contagious and thus spread the gospel, so to speak, about the need to make better and healthier food choices.

If that's the case, New York's ban, controversial as it is, could prove to be a catalyst for a beneficial national dialogue that ultimately and positively changes the way Americans view food. That would be welcome.