Commentary: Ban On Big Sodas A Big Mistake

Sep 16, 2012

The new ban on the sale of soft drinks in large containers in New York City is arbitrary and insulting.

Just because something is bad, that doesn't mean you should ban it. Bad is something that people need to decide for themselves, for the very simple reason that no one has a monopoly on knowing what bad is.

Some people think that sitting on a park bench and enjoying a pipe while you read the afternoon paper is a good thing. Others, like New York's Mayor Bloomberg, think this is such bad behavior it should be made illegal.

Some people don't like to have to make several lengthy trips to the concession stand to buy sodas during a ballgame. They think it is bad to stand in line at the ball park. They think it is good to buy one extra-large soda at a single go. This new rule will ban this type of convenience.

This restriction is insulting because it only makes sense if we think we need the government to tell us what and when and how much to drink. It is insulting because its premise is that we can't make up our minds for ourselves.

Now I am inclined to agree with the mayor that our population is vulnerable to the blandishments of marketing and advertising, particularly the poor and the poorly educated. These are problems — education and poverty — I wish he would tackle.

This particular regulation is also arbitrary. The ban only applies to some shops, not others; it targets the size of containers, not the amount of soda sold; the ban takes no account of the fact that, by volume, most of what fills up those giant beakers of soda is ice; the ban doesn't apply to milk shakes, or alcoholic drinks, or coffee drinks.

The mayor says the purpose here is not to ban soda, but to make people mindful of the dangers of obesity. As if people don't know that? As if we don't all know that thin is beautiful and positive and healthy and fat is dangerous and unsexy and negative? Thank you, Mr. Mayor!

My personal view is that there's two things going on here.

First, instead of tackling real problems, this mayor, like so many of our politicians, is just creating a diversion. He's making up problems he can solve.

Second, there's a deeper complex at work. A little knowledge is a very dangerous thing. Yes, obesity is a problem. Yes, it costs taxpayers. Yes, it would better if people were not obese. But if you think you can make a dent on something as deep and personal and important as how people eat and feel about their food by this kind of regulation, then you've got your head screwed on backwards.

We saw this same kind of simple-minded, technological approach to natural phenomena in New York City back when Hurricane Irene struck. This mayor shut down the subways, as well as the bridges and the tunnels, in advance of the storm. His actions — meant to avert disaster, or merely to divert the impression that he was inactive in the face of the incoming storm? — were immensely costly to the city and upsetting to its residents. He locked down New York.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit