By Paul Bisceglio
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sales of large sugary beverages has kept city politicians and soft-drink industry officials buzzing all summer. Last week, however, City Council Member Rosie Mendez took a walk downtown to talk to people whose opinions on the issue have been heard much less: business owners.
On a tour that spokesperson Eliot Hoff claimed was totally unscripted, New Yorkers for Beverage Choices—a coalition formed by the American Beverage Association (ABA) to combat Bloomberg’s ban—brought Mendez to the Dunkin’ Donuts at Union Square and Beyond Sushi on 14th Street. The goal of the tour was to break through the political jargon and various statistics surrounding the controversial proposal to hear firsthand what effects, if any, the removal of non-diet sugary drinks over the size of 16 ounces would have on the city’s businesses.
“If you’ve got a rule, you need one that makes sense,” said the Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee, who would not give his name to the press. As he walked Mendez through the store, he argued that the nuances of the proposed ban unfairly targeted some businesses while exempting others.
Take Starbucks, for instance. Bloomberg’s proposal defines sugary drinks as those which contain more than 25 calories per 8 fluid ounces and less than 51 percent milk or milk substitute by volume. Starbucks sells Frappuccinos made with more than 51 percent milk and lets customers sweeten coffee themselves, so it would still be allowed to sell large sizes of these products, according to the franchisee. Dunkin’ Donuts, meanwhile, sells Coffee Coolattas with less than 51 percent milk and sweetens coffees for customers, so it would not be able to sell these items over the 16 ounce limit.
“The point is the arbitrariness of what’s being applied,” the franchisee argued. “People can always get away with getting more sugar. Why should only particular businesses suffer?”
Guy Vaknin, Beyond Sushi’s executive chef, told Mendez that he found the arbitrary size limit particularly troubling. “Why 16 ounces?” he wondered. “The limit should just be based just on sugar content, not on size.”
Hoff pointed out that the ban would prevent the vegan sushi restaurant—and all restaurants in NYC—from selling popular flavors of Honest Tea, a brand of organic tea bottled just over the proposed 16 ounce limit. Honest Tea, which markets itself as promoting “great-tasting, truly healthy” beverages, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last month challenging the mayor to consider how his ban would impede entrepreneurs from offering low-calorie drinks.
“I definitely promote people having their own choice,” Vaknin said.
Hoff added that in the battle against the city’s obesity epidemic, New Yorkers need more choices, not fewer. “We need more public advocacy campaigns and more green markets to educate consumers and allow them to make informed decisions,” he argued.
New Yorkers for Beverage Choices has 1,570 members to date, he noted, from Coca-Cola bottling companies to around-the-corner pizza places. While ABA has a clear vested interest in rallying against the ban, Hoff asserted that members of the coalition are not solicited for funds and that membership is completely voluntary. The coalition gives businesses “an outlet to have their voices heard,” he claimed, by providing them with signage, ways to interact with local elected officials (such as the tour) and updates on the ban.
Hoff could not disclose the amount of money ABA is putting into the coalition, but acknowledged that “this is a significant effort.”
After the tour, Mendez told Our Town Downtown that she had a “visceral reaction” against the proposal from the start. “The problem is this arbitrariness, how the ban affects one business and not the next,” she said.
The real solution to the city’s growing waistline? “We need to focus our energies on better exercise and education programs,” Mendez argued. “There’s not one right or wrong amount of soda to drink—you adjust it based on your lifestyle.”
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