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Soft drink ban makes us think

We now live in an Enchanted Forest of food. Where humans once foraged for wild spinach and huckleberries, we now belly up to fountains of Coca-Cola, vats of big Slurpees and tubs of venti white chocolate mochas topped with whipped cream.

Last week New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed reversing this forest’s seductive spell with a new ban on oversized, sugary soft drinks from venues such as fast food franchises, movie theaters and ballparks. The laughter started almost immediately, with New York Times readers chiming in to suggest he forbid naked midriffs, car alarms and white shoes while he’s at it.

It’s difficult to imagine such a ban being enacted in Spokane. After all, in 2010 voters in this state overturned a tax on candy and soft drinks. But then again, just a few years ago we wouldn’t have predicted a ban on smoking at local taverns either.

The don’t-take-my-freedoms crowd may be apoplectic, but Bloomberg’s proposal puts the spotlight on a significant issue. Americans have become dramatically more obese in the last 20 years. In Spokane County alone, only 36 percent of all adults actually carry a normal weight. In 2009, the effects of Bloomsday and Hoopfest to the contrary, 35 percent of us were overweight and 29 percent were obese.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that being overweight or obese increases our risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers. It estimates that in 2008 the medical costs of obesity in the U.S. were $147 billion.

Most of us know what causes weight gain. Yet a complex set of motivators – emotional, psychological, biological, cultural and commercial – compel us to ignore rational thought.

Public health experts point out that the environmental cues of our Enchanted Forest of food seduce us into neglecting that a 32-ounce serving of Coke contains 310 calories, that a 40-ounce Berry Blaster Slurpee packs 325 calories or that a 20-ounce iced white chocolate mocha tops out at 640 calories.

Even 40 years ago, we ate much smaller portions and struggled with obesity far less. Dick’s Hamburgers, which has changed little since the 1970s, sells a 10-ounce small Coke. McDonald’s labels a 16-ounce Coke a “small.”

Schools in the Spokane area have restricted sales of sugary soft drinks, which the Spokane Regional Health District credits with lowering local children’s pop consumption and keeping their obesity levels stable from 2006 to 2010.

But more needs to be done to curtail adult weight gain. One of the culprits: sugar-laden soft drinks. In a survey late last year, the health district found that males, young adults aged 18 to 34 and those with a high school degree or less were much more likely than other Spokane County residents to report drinking one or more non-diet soft drinks daily.

One solution might be a ban like the one proposed in New York. As with the smoking ban, we would soon adapt.

Another solution might involve consumer advocacy groups boycotting the worst offenders. If profit concerns drive these menu offerings, they’d also have the power to reverse them.

Certainly business owners, who pay the price of spiraling health insurance premiums for their employees, could follow Steve Jobs’ lead at Apple. Employers have a vested interest in switching to healthy foods and beverages in company cafeterias and vending machines. Fewer bypass operations for employees could soon offset any loss in junk food sales.

Then again, we could target Spokane venues where young, male high school graduates hang out. Those guys are as likely to become obese as any of the rest of us. Athletic centers, golf courses, movie theaters, fast food restaurants and bars could be pressured to drop the oversized sodas, ratchet back the beer servings and trim the burgers.

We can laugh at Bloomberg’s idea, but we can’t ignore it.

Our ancestors would be astounded to learn what life is like in the Enchanted Forest of food. Many American families established the clean plate club because they remembered the scarcity of lean times. They could not have imagined the alternative. Now it’s not deprivation that’s likely to kill us, it’s abundance.

Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, serves as an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. She may be reached at


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