Should Michael Bloomberg Treat Obesity Like Smoking?


An article in London’s Evening Standard, “Smoking is so last century: the new stigma is obesity,” got us thinking: would Mayor Mike Bloomberg do a better job fighting fat-making foods, such as super-sized sodas, by treating them like cigarettes — taxing them rather than banning them, that is?

To be clear, we’re not saying that Bloomberg should or should not ban these things.

What we’re saying, though, is that if he actually wants to address obesity, then he maybe should consider other policies.

Now, we’re neither the first nor the only people who have asked these kinds of things, but reports have recently surfaced that further put to question whether bans are the best practice.

For example, a recent USDA study suggests that “increasing the price of sugary drinks by 20 percent would reduce the consumption of those beverages by 20 percent.”

Mother Jones‘ Erik Kain pointed out some info favoring taxation last week, noting that enforcing a ban might cost more than the public health costs it originally was trying to offset.

Also, he points out that: “Taxing sugary drinks would put downward pressure on consumption of those drinks without any enforcement, and revenue could be pumped into public health and education efforts, effectively killing two birds with one stone.”

Others have advocated taxing obesity-linked foods including former New York Gov. David Paterson.

For example, a $1.25 increase in New York cigarette tax* reportedly results in 243,000 fewer youth smokers and prevents 37,000 tobacco-related deaths — as well as saving state health care coffers $5 billion. Tariff-oriented efforts across the U.S. have shown demonstrable success — less than 20 percent of Americans light up, the lowest level in generations.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said whether vice taxes are fair. Some economists contend that they disproportionally target the poor, but they are still recognized as “strong deterrent” to unhealthy behavior.

We reached out to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to see what officials thought of these concerns. We asked: Are there any metrics in place to see whether this ban will do anything to eliminate obesity? Any idea how much this will cost?

We also wanted to know: Why did Bloomberg go for a ban as opposed to a tax? We also asked: Have Bloomberg’s other food policies — like making nutrition facts mandatory on menu boards and transfat bans — been measured for success?

A Department spokeswoman told us that she wasn’t sure whether Health and Hygiene was still answering questions about these issues, but would check into it. So we’ll let you know if we hear back.

(*Full disclosure: We smoke cigarettes occasionally. While we obvs don’t like when the price goes up, it does seem true that you smoke fewer when they’re more expensive.)