After months of debate, the New York City Board of Health voted on Thursday to limit the serving size of large sugary drinks to 16 ounces. The so-called “soda ban,” proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in May, aims to combat obesity and related diseases like diabetes—and could have a marked effect in northern Manhattan.
In Harlem, obesity has long been a widespread problem. A 2008 study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that four in 10 adults in East and Central Harlem drink four or more sugary drinks daily, compared with one in 10 on the Upper West Side. In addition, Harlem parents introduce sugary drinks to their children at around 3.5 years of age, earlier than parents on the Upper West Side.
Jeanine Genkinger, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, called the board’s vote “a good first step in reducing the obesity epidemic in the United States.”
“Large amounts of individuals are consuming large amounts of sugary drinks,” she said. “This is one step along the road in reducing calories.”
But Genkinger said that the question of whether the ban will reduce obesity in Harlem will depend on environmental factors independent of the policy.
“Some of those are cultural factors, safety factors, and education factors,” Genkinger said. “For individuals who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, providing healthy foods is normally more expensive. People find it difficult to put healthy food on the table.”
This is an especially influential factor in Harlem, where income disparity is the highest in the city, said Carly Hutchinson, director of communications and community relations at the Harlem Health Promotion Center. There is also a substantial difference in the number of supermarkets in Harlem compared to neighborhoods in the rest of the city, she noted.
“Unhealthy food is more affordable and ubiquitous,” Hutchinson said. “In very poor areas, there is no access to healthy food, and it’s not safe to go out, so you can’t exercise as much.”
Bloomberg’s proposal was the subject of much debate by politicians, the soda industry, small-business owners, and the general public. One of the main issues was whether improving nutrition education is a better solution.
Indeed, there is a long way to go in terms of nutrition education in northern Manhattan, Hutchinson said. “People don’t understand the differences between sugar-sweetened beverages and other beverages.”
Deb Lewison-Grant is the co-founder of FoodFight, an education nonprofit based in Manhattan Valley that emphasizes food literacy curriculum in public schools. Lewison-Grant believes that the attention the ban has brought to the issue will “get people to think twice about buying the beverage.”
“As far as single-handedly reversing the epidemic, it won’t do that because the problem is too pervasive,” Lewison-Grant said. “But it helps to give a person pause at the point of purchase.”
At least two local politicians have come out against the ban. City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents parts of East Harlem and the Upper West Side, wrote in the Huffington Post in July that the health department should instead focus its efforts on better education.
Council member Robert Jackson, whose district includes West Harlem and Hamilton Heights, said in a statement that the ban “is not the answer in combating obesity.” He characterized the measure’s reach as “inequitable,” pointing out that establishments that receive grades from the health department—restaurants and movie theaters, for instance—must adhere to the restriction, but bodegas next door will not.
“We can strike a balance between creating a healthy and consumer savvy New York without hurting our small businesses,” he said.
Many New Yorkers have opposed the policy on principle, calling it an overreach of an invasive administration.
“I’m against the mayor legislating people’s right to what they want to drink,” Dennis Francis, a Harlem resident, said. “I’m against soda, though, I don’t believe it’s healthy.”
“He’s trying to get into our personal life,” Linda Woods, a Harlem resident, said. “We can’t smoke cigarettes nowhere, now we can’t drink a big soda. What’s next, we can’t have eggs?”
Domingo Santiago, who mans a booth advertising healthy choices on 125th Street, said that he could appreciate people’s concerns, but favored the ban nevertheless.
“A lot of times, kids drink whatever’s there because it’s just another option, without knowing the consequences,” Santiago said. “I see it as a benefit for kids.”
Another concern is whether or not the ban will hurt businesses that rely heavily on soft-drink sales.
Anthony Marino, a shift manager at a McDonald’s on 125th Street and Broadway, said that the law could significantly hurt the chain.
“Probably half of our sales are based on the drinks we sell,” he said. “When extra-large drinks were banned about two years ago, customers complained. We still have people come in and ask for them.”
Guruji Rai, the owner of Lincoln Fried Chicken on 125th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard, said he wasn’t worried about his profits.
“I’m not thinking about my store, I’m thinking about health,” Rai said. “After a couple of weeks, people will get used to it.”
The regulation—the first such ban in the country—will go into effect March 12, unless it is struck down by a judge.
Jillian Kumagai contributed reporting.