When Do Rules To Limit Choices (Control Behavior) Go Too Far?

I mentioned briefly at the end of my June newsletter the proposal by Mayor Bloomberg of New York City to restrict the size of soft drink servings. As you probably have heard, the New York City Board of Health has approved the mayor’s proposal.

As I said then, I know this seems off topic for this newsletter. The restriction of soft drink serving sizes is, however, an attempt to control behavior by restricting people’s choices, which is not that different from the examples I have written about of misguided attempts to use zoning law to control behavior.

Whether it’s off topic or not, I feel compelled to express my opinion on this legislative effort to influence our choices. Some of you may disagree with me. I respect your right to your own opinion. I just can’t see how this kind of legislative action is beneficial. I think it sends the wrong signals and points society in the wrong direction.

By the way, what kind of weird government do they have in New York City? The soft drink size rule was adopted by the City’s Board of Health, which according to the information I have seen is a panel of citizens appointed by the mayor. So, a board appointed by the mayor can enact a law that the mayor proposed, and the only one accountable to the voters for that action is the mayor. Who decided that was a good idea?

The news accounts that I have seen (I haven’t read the actual law adopted by the city) say that the rule will limit to no more than 16 ounces servings of sugar-sweetened beverages sold by restaurants, movie theaters, food carts, and concession stands. Interestingly, convenience stores are apparently not subject to the rule. Other drinks that might have similar calorie levels, like sweetened coffee or milk-based drinks, are not subject to the rule. In other words, there is line-drawing on two levels: the type of drink, and the type of purveyor.

Here’s where I think we start to see how pernicious this kind of rule-making is. What type of business is going to be most affected by this rule? My guess is it will be fast-food outlets. Regular restaurants probably don’t typically serve soda in glasses larger than 16 ounces. As we have seen in the behavior-based zoning wars, political decision-makers don’t like fast food outlets, but they like restaurants.

What we have here is some pretty arbitrary line-drawing. What is the logic for including food carts, but not convenience stores? And why shouldn’t coffee or milk-based drinks be included?

The problem of arbitrary line-drawing is, of course, that the lines are arbitrary. Rules that look unobjectionable in isolation suddenly don’t look so good when you realize that there is really no logical stopping point to the rule-making. What is the rationale for not extending this can’t have too many calories rule to cheeseburgers, or ice cream? Isn’t the logical conclusion not to ban foods that are unhealthy, but to only allow foods that are healthy?

And why should there be some purveyors that are exempt? If you don’t extend it to grocery stores, what’s going to stop me from getting a two-liter bottle of Jolt Cola (do they still make that?) and guzzling the whole thing, if I can’t get a 44-ounce cup of cola at the fast food joint? Why not limit all containers to a maximum of 16 ounces?

I know some people are unpersuaded by these slippery slope arguments. Rules for our own good are fine. No one is saying that cheeseburgers should be outlawed.

Really? Well, they may not be talking about banning cheeseburgers yet, but according to CBS News, the Board of Health is talking about limiting popcorn, milkshakes, and fruit juice. There is no reason why serving size limits shouldn’t be placed on anything containing lots of calories, according to at least one board member. And Mayor Bloomberg, among other politicians, has long advocated for limits, if not an outright ban, on salt in food.

The suggestion that there should be limits on all high-calorie foods really proves my point. The logical conclusion of that way of thinking is that only those things that are deemed to be beneficial should be allowed.

I prefer the opposite approach. When it comes to food, everything is allowed. I get to decide what is good for me.

Why shouldn’t it be that way for just about everything?


“Man invented language to satisfy his deep need to complain.”

Lily Tomlin
US actress & comedienne (1939 – )