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Food and Drink

Does Mayor Bloomberg have a Napoleon complex?

Tuesday June 19, 2012

Brian Monteith reports on New York’s battle over fizzy drinks

Will the real Mayor Bloomberg stand up? Is he an enthusiast of Nudge theory, pointing and nudging people in the “right” direction or is he an impatient bully that can’t wait or rely on good citizens to make the “right” decision for themselves – and thus enforces it upon them?

The evidence is mounting that New York City’s Bloomberg is a bully, and an especially pernicious one at that. His latest proposal to ban large cups of take-away fizzy drinks won’t be the last example of his wish to boss people about.

He appears to have a domineering wish for the headlines, a sort of Napoleon complex meets Viagra. The irony is that while Mayor Bloomberg is the same height as Napoleon was, at five feet six, Napoleon was in fact two inches taller than the average Frenchman at the end of the eighteenth century, while Bloomberg’s four inches shorter than Americans at the end of the twentieth. That’s a lot of inches to make up by force of personality.

For Bloomberg, what he says pretty much goes, as this latest example of bullying shows. In this, the year of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, it is worth noting that he has more autocratic powers than any monarch in antiquarian Europe. The likelihood of the Mayor ever having his comeuppance at the hands of the electorate is, however, rather slim, for such is the nature of politics he is beyond challenge. Indeed, he’s already had the term of limitations for a New York Mayor amended to allow him a third time in office.

So what’s he done now?

In a welter of publicity that has got the whole of America talking, Bloomberg has proposed that a new by-law will be introduced prohibiting the sale of any sugary cold drinks larger than 16 fluid ounces from take-away establishments (McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFC etc.) or from sidewalks stalls, sports stadia and theatre halls.

Not wishing to take on too much at once, Bloomberg’s ban will not include hot drinks – such as sugary, creamy Cappuccino – or cold beers. Denying the ”Latte to go” and beer at the baseball would be just too much for a New Yorker to take.

It’s only a proposal at the moment but as he appoints everyone to the health board that will sanction the ban it’s a foregone conclusion. The Prince of Wales would love such power were he King!

Bloomberg’s target is obesity, now outranking smoking as public health enemy number one in the US, where it is claimed by public health authorities that more people are obese (35.7%) than smoke (19.3%). Going by the way the “official” stats are moving there will soon be double the amount of obese as against smoking Americans. Hence Bloomberg’s bullying.

The ban will, of course, not make an ounce of difference to the gradual weight gain that Americans have experienced over recent years. For a start customers can count and will simply buy a second cup, and some will even buy a double order. But most of all the vendors will offer legitimate BOGOF deals – buy one get one free – where refills will be offered free to those who have bought a 15.95 fl oz cup of Dr Pepper.

Then there’s the undoubted truth that there is no evidence showing that fizzy drinks (or even the quantity of fizzy drinks) are the problem that deserves targeting. What about burgers which, depending where you buy them, can be of dubious origin? What about those hot dogs – which part of the pig did you say they were made from? Then there’s all that oily and eggy mayonnaise dressing, the onions drenched in animal fats, and have you seen how much sugar’s in the ketchup?

Why, it makes me hungry just writing about it.

America’s problem, indeed the West’s problem, is not especially dietary; I’ve travelled the world enough to see hundreds of fat bodies in other places like the Caribbean and Africa (yes, that’s right, Africa) that suggest you cannot blame one food or one drink. I have no doubt the issue is two-fold – some people are disposed by their genes to gain fat more easily than others – and the reduction of physical labour at work, at home and at leisure means many people consume more fuel than they can burn – and some people can be susceptible to both problems.

So banning the big cups of fizzy Fanta will not make a difference. Worse, it removes the individual’s responsibility for deciding what’s right for his or her body. There is also that admirable aspect of the human spirit where people will go out of their way to dodge the rule – and proclaim with some pride how they have given that billionaire bully Bloomberg the finger.

So upset are many Americans about this latest proposal that columnists who supported the bans on smoking in public places and the use of trans-fats (margarine to you and I) are railing against Bloomberg saying he’s crossed the line. Their argument goes that smoking kills innocent bystanders (credible evidence please) and transfats kill people unaware they are consuming them (er, evidence?) but everyone knows sugary drinks are fattening – it should be left to their individual choice and there’s no third party risk. I don’t get it, they are all examples of the state intervening where individual responsibility needs to be restored or enhanced.

Bloomberg’s bullying – for that is what it is – is not the solution. People being accountable to themselves for their health, paying for the consequences of their poor decisions and then passing the lessons on to their children and grandchildren is the only way that generations will rediscover what their mothers and grandmothers always told them: “Everything in moderation”.

Bloomberg’s public smoking bans indoors and now outdoors (as in Central Park), the trans-fat bans, the calorie counting menus and the assaults on salt and sugar consumption will still not change New Yorkers; whether they are fat or thin, short or tall I don’t care – they will still be the rudest people I’ve ever met – and in dealing with Bloomberg, I hope they stay that way.

Brian Monteith is author of The Bully State – the end of tolerance and is five feet five inches tall

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