A judge on Monday blocked New York City’s limits on servings of sugary drinks just a day before they were to go into effect. Mayor Michael Bloomberg attracted worldwide attention for the effort, which he advertised as a measure to combat obesity. But critics, including the judge in the case, considered the measure government overreach. We explore where the debate is likely to go from here.


  • Peter Beilenson CEO, Evergreen Health Cooperative; Former Health Officer, Howard County (Md.)


  • 13:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, start-ups, sequestration and D.C.'s tech sector, we'll ponder the future of technology in our region's economy.

  • 13:07:05

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, super-sized sodas survive in the Big Apple for now. A judge on Monday blocked New York City's limits on sugary drinks just a day before they were set to go into effect.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIMayor Michael Bloomberg attracted worldwide attention, both positive and negative, when he pushed through a plan to limit the size of such drinks at restaurants, theaters and food courts. Health advocates cheered the law as a crucial step in fighting back against an obesity epidemic.

  • 13:07:33

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut critics, including the judge who blocked the law, called it government overreach. Joining us to explore where we go from here and what this debate means for communities across the country is Peter Beilenson. He is the CEO of the Evergreen Health Cooperative in Maryland. He's the former health officer for Howard Country, Maryland, and the former health commissioner for Baltimore, Md. Peter Beilenson joins us by phone. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:02

    MR. PETER BEILENSONThanks for having me.

  • 13:08:03

    NNAMDIPeter, this law would have banned sugary drinks larger than 16 oz. State Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling said these limits were arbitrary and capricious, but you've repeatedly said, from a health perspective, it makes sense to coalesce around the message of keeping sweet beverages away from kids in particular. What did you make of the policy that Michael Bloomberg wanted to put in place in New York and what do you make of yesterday's ruling?

  • 13:08:31

    BEILENSONWell, I think actually Mayor Bloomberg's policy was a bit of an overreach and I think the ruling was actually sensible. It was capricious. I mean, it's partly capricious because it limited only to restaurants and grocery stores that are overseen by the New York City Health Department. But it also only dealt with certain sugar-containing products.

  • 13:08:56

    BEILENSONThere is a vast array of them besides sugar-sweetened beverages. Sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals obviously are targeted at kids as well. So the way we've kind of come down on it, both in Baltimore and in Howard and I think in public health in general, to try and avoid the backlash of those who consider us the sugar police or the health police is to really do what we did with cigarette smoking, with seatbelt usage et cetera, and drinking alcohol and driving.

  • 13:09:26

    BEILENSONSome of those obviously had legal implications, but mostly those were dealt with by educating the public extensively as to why it was important to avoid those things. And I think that's what we need to do with sugar-sweetened beverages because there are just so many sugar-sweetened products out there that you can't ban all of them.

  • 13:09:45

    NNAMDIWell, what we did with cigarettes or, well, first, what we did with seatbelts is we not only educated the public about them, but we made the use mandatory. What we did with cigarettes was educated the public about them and then make them increasingly more expensive. Is that something you would look at?

  • 13:10:04

    BEILENSONRight, right. I think that is the -- well, maybe not even more expensive, but trying to limit their availability...

  • 13:10:10


  • 13:10:10

    BEILENSON...in certain places. So for example, you can still buy cigarettes if you're an adult. I do believe in protecting underage people like we did with the tanning ban in Howard County. That was banning tanning, which is a known carcinogen in teenagers, but anyone who is an adult could do it.

  • 13:10:29

    BEILENSONWe think it's a stupid thing to do, frankly, but similarly with cigarettes, it's banned for younger people, but adults can choose to smoke. But because we've had such extensive education on the dangers of smoking, we've dropped from about 41 percent of American adults smoking in the 1960s down to about 21-22 percent now.

  • 13:10:47

    BEILENSONAnd that's been a huge lifesaver as opposed to potentially banning all cigarette sales, which could lead to a black market along the lines of what's happened with drugs, illicit drugs and the crime that follows thereto or there from and as happened with alcohol prohibition back in the 19-whatever it was, 30s or so.

  • 13:11:05

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, we're talking with Peter Beilenson, CEO of the Evergreen Health Cooperative in Maryland about a judge's decision yesterday that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could not, in fact, ban sugary drinks larger than 16 oz. in certain establishments.

  • 13:11:25

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to comment on that, give us a call 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. Peter Beilenson, what sense do you have for how enforceable a law like that would have been? People say, hey, if I can't order a Venti, sugary drinks at Starbucks, I can just order two Grandes and drink them both.

  • 13:11:45

    BEILENSONI think on your show I said this about a year ago, exactly that. So if you can't buy a 16 oz. or greater sugar, you know, Super Gulp, just get a couple of 12 ouncers. I mean, it's really impossible to enforce and, again, getting back to the analogy of cigarette smoking, many, many places now not only ban smoking in the building, obviously, in fact that's virtually universal.

  • 13:12:05

    BEILENSONBut whereas buying cigarettes is legal in certain stores, employers have more and more banned, if not completely banned around the country, the sale of cigarettes in their places of employment. So those are things that employers can do, who obviously -- employers now are one of the main suppliers of health insurance so they can argue from their economic perspective as well as the health of their employees.

  • 13:12:34

    BEILENSONThey can make it more and more difficult to sell cigarettes and I think that's the best analogy, as you were alluding to, not banning them outright, at least for adults, because of the potential that adults can make these decisions on their own. But we want adults to be well-educated as to the dangers of sugar-sweetened beverages, but as analogously with cigarettes, trying to make it as difficult as possible to get those, have the availability of those as difficult as possible and at the same time making more available healthier options like water, like low sugar-sweetened beverages, like low-calorie beverages et cetera.

  • 13:13:09

    NNAMDII'd be interested in hearing what our listeners think about this. Would you support a limit on the size of sugary drinks in your community? Why or why not? 800-433-8850, Howard County, from a health perspective, Peter Beilenson, where do you think that such drinks, and the calories that we drink, should fit into the conversation about obesity?

  • 13:13:32

    BEILENSONOh hugely, hugely. The statistics vary all over the place, but basically about 40 percent, 40, 4-0 percent of excess calories in an average American's diet come from sugar-sweetened beverages. That ranges, but it's around that level so the excess calories above what you need to maintain your weight, 40 percent of them come from sugar-sweetened beverages.

  • 13:13:57

    BEILENSONAnd it's widely known that now sugar actually leads directly to diabetes. It's not the other way around, that you have problems with sugar or that just eating excess sugar leads to overweight, which leads to diabetes. Sugar itself leads to diabetes.

  • 13:14:11

    BEILENSONSo it's an extremely important public health issue. I just don't believe necessarily in banning these things outright.

  • 13:14:20

    NNAMDIWell, Howard County, last year, banned the sale of sugary drinks on county property. It's my understanding that that measure exempted schools, but regardless, it was an example of the government making decisions for what happens in government buildings on government property. What would you say to the person who is okay with that, but not okay with someone telling them what they can or cannot buy at a restaurant, a Wawa or Royal Farms?

  • 13:14:43

    BEILENSONWell, I think they're actually -- that's similar. I think that's -- oh I'm sorry, I take that back. That is related to what I was talking about with an employer. Howard County government is a major employer in Howard County and in the region, for that matter, and it is in their interest, economic interest and for the taxpayers' interest to help keep health care costs down to make that kind of an edict, if you will.

  • 13:15:07

    BEILENSONAnd that's happening all over the country. That is different than a public setting where people can go to buy food at restaurants and grocery stores where, again, banning it makes -- I think is an overstep, an overreach. But we can make people as well-educated as possible that these are dangerous, potentially-dangerous substances, not as dangerous potentially as cigarettes, but certainly long-term with very significant health risks and I think that's the best way to deal with it.

  • 13:15:38

    BEILENSONBut I do think employers have the right, and more and more they are, to set the guidelines of what's sold in their own places of employment.

  • 13:15:46

    NNAMDIThe last time we spoke on this broadcast, we chatted and you mentioned it, about your efforts in Howard County to stop tanning salons from allowing teenage customers. What do you think you learned from that experience that would inform people crafting public health policies now about calorie-counting, sugary drinks and the like that seem to involve the same kinds of themes?

  • 13:16:04

    BEILENSONWell, that's a very good question and the consistency of our policies is important to think about. In that case, I would argue that tanning -- and again, to remind your listeners, Howard County became the first jurisdiction in the United States, which has now, by the way, been followed by the State of California and the CDC's recommendations that because tanning is a known carcinogen for teenagers, for under 18, we banned the use of tanning beds for teenagers and allowing it for adults who can make the decision on their own knowing that this is a dangerous activity.

  • 13:16:43

    BEILENSONThat, in general, I think, is sort of the way to go. It's protecting kids who often will do things without parental knowledge. I mean, obviously, the rights of parents are important, but a lot of times kids will do things without parental knowledge and by protecting kids, but allowing adults to make their decisions, I think it is the most consistent way of looking at things.

  • 13:17:03

    NNAMDIHere is Diane in Laurel, Md. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:17:06

    DIANEHi, I've got a question for both of you really. I remember back when consumers used boycotts to give manufacturers the messages what they didn't like about what they were doing with products. I remember when tampons were boycotted by women because they were -- prices kept going up and women said we're not buying it anymore and they stabilized.

  • 13:17:31

    DIANEOther things they did were with meat. I remember all those boycotts. I don't hear about anybody boycotting about manufacturers putting things in the products to make us fat and we won't buy the product.

  • 13:17:44

    NNAMDIFascinating question, Peter Beilenson, if this were a grassroots movement coming from the bottom rather than the, what seemed to be instructions coming from the top. Do you think it would make a difference?

  • 13:17:55

    BEILENSONYeah, I think it would make a difference. I grew up in California in the '60s and '70s and actually, similarly that was for other reasons, but there were great boycotts led by the United Farmworkers under Cesar Chavez and that was sort of a grassroots effort that did change some of the policies. That was different than the specifics of the policy that we're talking about here, but I think that would make a difference.

  • 13:18:15

    BEILENSONAnd to be fair, a lot of parents in schools, for example, here in Baltimore City as well as in Howard County, have been pushing their leadership at principals or the school systems to do things like having healthier options. And in fact, at my children's school here at Roland Park Elementary in Baltimore, we actually have a wellness committee that's been implementing these changes so I do think there is some grassroots efforts. There are some grassroots efforts out there. There certainly could be more.

  • 13:18:44

    NNAMDIBefore you go, Peter, what do you expect will happen from here on out when it comes to this drink ruling? Will localities around the country be willing to legislate similar policies if they're worried about running into the same kind of legal issues that New York City is up against right now?

  • 13:18:59

    BEILENSONI think if a New York State Supreme Court justice rules this way, in a blue state it's going to be likely that those kinds of rulings will happen in other states. And I think that other jurisdictions are going to hold off on bans until they hear more about what the legal system prescribes, if you will.

  • 13:19:17

    BEILENSONBut I do think there's going to be a continued effort to educate the public about how there can be very serious, long-term health consequences of drinking lots of sugary-sweetened beverages and frankly, sugar-laden food as well. And so that's really the way we should be going, is educating the public as much as possible on how to eat healthier and how to live healthier.

  • 13:19:36

    NNAMDIPeter Beilenson is the CEO of the Evergreen Health Cooperative in Maryland. He's former health officer for Howard County, Maryland, and the former health commissioner for Baltimore, Md. Peter, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:19:46

    BEILENSONThanks very much for having me, sir.

  • 13:19:48

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, start-ups, sequestration and D.C.'s tech sector, we're pondering the future of technology in our region's economy. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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