N.Y. Judge Overturns Bloomberg's Soda Ban

A New York state judge has sided with the beverage industry and struck down the Bloomberg administration's controversial ban on big sugary drinks. The judge ruled that the rule, put in place by New York City's health department and set to take effect Tuesday, is "arbitrary and capricious."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an update now on New York City's great battle between public health and personal freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, are we going to let the mayor tell us what size beverage to buy? If we let him get away with this, where will it end?

INSKEEP: That's an ad by the group New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, which is paid for by the soft drink industry.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on large, sugary drinks will not take effect today in New York City, as scheduled. A state judge struck down the rule intended to curb obesity.

INSKEEP: The ruling is a win for the beverage industry, but Bloomberg vows to appeal. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Mayor Michael Bloomberg might have been hoping to spend the day talking about how his city's ban on big, sugary drinks could be a model for the rest of the nation. Instead, Bloomberg found himself defending the idea at a hastily arranged press conference last night.

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MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Obesity kills. There's just no question about it. There's no question that it comes from overeating, and there's no question that empty calories contribute to the problem. This is the science. Now, we've got to do something about it.

ROSE: What the city wants to do about it would be groundbreaking, except that New York State Court Judge Milton Tingling put on the brakes. The Board of Health wants to limit sugary drinks to no more than 16 ounces in restaurants, delis, food carts and movie theaters. But those limits would not apply in grocery stores or convenience stores. There are other loopholes, too. Beverages that are more than half milk are excluded, as are alcoholic drinks.

CHRIS GINDLESPERGER: The policy, as written, was riddled with irrational exclusions and loopholes.

ROSE: Chris Gindlesperger is a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association, one of the plaintiffs that sued to block the law. The judge agreed with their argument that the city's limit is, quote, "arbitrary and capricious."

GINDLESPERGER: The real issue here is that New Yorkers are smart enough to decide for themselves what's right to eat and drink, and they don't need government help doing that.

ROSE: The judge also agreed with the plaintiff's argument that the Board of Health had overstepped its authority. The city's top lawyer, Michael Cardozo, left no doubt that he'll appeal the ruling.

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MICHAEL CARDOZO: We think he is wrong, when you look at the law. And we are confident that the appellate court will recognize that.

ROSE: But some New Yorkers urged the Bloomberg administration to take the hint and back down.

GARY BERRY: Listen, Mr. Mayor Bloomberg. Keep your mouth closed. Just let us live our life.

ROSE: Gary Berry lives in Harlem.

BERRY: You're trying to tell people how to eat, drink. You can't do that. You can't. Well, that's why I'm glad the judge blocked it.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Polls show New Yorkers are roughly divided about the wisdom of the ban, with a slight majority opposed. Julie Mendelssohn of Queens thinks the judge did the right thing by striking down the size limit.

JULIE MENDELSSOHN: I think it is a good decision.

ROSE: You think the mayor was going too far.

MENDELSSOHN: A little bit. I think it should be parents' decision for their kids, and adults' decision for themselves.

ROSE: But other New Yorkers support what the mayor is trying to do. Thomas McPherson lives in the Bronx.

THOMAS MCPHERSON: There's a thing that my grandfather tells me: If it's not in the house, you don't eat it. You know, so, if it's not around, it's not a choice for people to have. Yeah, there's a way that's it's kind of bad. You take people's rights away, of choice. But in the long run, it's not going to hurt. Nobody's really going to miss it, and you're probably better off that way.

ROSE: Mayor Bloomberg has pushed controversial proposals before, and they've become national models, like the city's indoor smoking ban or its requirement that chain restaurants post calorie counts on their menus. But this time, that's looking like a long shot.

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BLOOMBERG: We strongly believe that, in the end, the courts will recognize the Board of Health's authority to regulate the sale of beverages that have virtually no nutritional value and which, consumed in large quantities, are leading to disease and death for thousands of people every year.

ROSE: Mayor Bloomberg may no longer be in office when the city's appeal is heard. His third and presumably final term ends in December. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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