A health blogger’s open letter to Mayor Bloomberg on his “soda ban”

New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mayor Bloomberg,

I’m torn.

Much of my writing is centered around the promotion of real food in place of the commercially raised, chemically engineered pseudofood with which we are so willing to poison ourselves for the sake of convenience. I’m happy to see large-scale policy that aligns with what I have come to learn about human nutrition but I hesitate to support you in your most recent piece of health policy. Your proposal to ban the sale of sugary beverages over 16 ounces is well intended but I fear it will not effectively foster more healthful behaviors amongst your constituents.

Seems like a good idea…

First of all, I deeply respect you. You take your job seriously and wave the $225,000 salary due to you as Mayor of New York. You only accept $1 annually for your services and do what you think is right for your constituents. You take matters of health more seriously than many other leaders in this country. It’s hard to fault somebody for governing with conviction.

This proposal addresses our dire need for truth in the general public about the dangers (and outright toxicity) of sugar to the human being. We continue to consume more and more of the sweet stuff. Its grip on us is so tight and emotionally charged that even our own healthcare providers approach the issue with kid gloves.

I read through many charts of patients dangerously close to being Diabetic. The notes I see in the patient instructions are indicative of the soft hand with which we, as healthcare professionals, approach diet and lifestyle in the doctor’s office.

“Try to limit processed foods”

“Reduce your carbohydrate intake”

“Opt for non-caloric beverages”

Can you imagine the same language being printed on a bottle of Zocor?

A policy is always more than just a code of conduct. It also articulates the values of a society. Your actions make a public declaration that the overconsumption of sugar is something that needs to be seriously addressed.

More policies like this will likely elicit more doctor/patient dialogue on the dangers of sugar consumption. Time is so limited during each doctors visit that the vast majority of it is spent dealing with that which the physician has more knowledge of and control over; prescriptions, tests and procedures.  It is our fault as patients for not either self educating on that which is truly foundational to our health (food) or demanding of our doctors the guidance and education that will support whatever care plan they prescribe for us.

Yet still, I’d like to see more doctors take a harder stand on sugar with their patients. Perhaps someday soon our doctors will all be as blunt about sugar as Dr. Robert Lustig:

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It is true, as the good doctor stated, that sugar is addictive. This is surprisingly easy to accept once we remind ourselves that sugar is made in plants, as are opium and cocaine. We regulate these substances, so why not sugar?

(Wow. I’m starting to re-thinking my opposition to your proposed ban at this point.)

But what about the costs?…

A ban really has no real direct cost to the government aside from enforcement. Then of course you have the potentially reduced revenue in taxes from the vendors (due to drop in sales of the banned items). I’m not going to go dig up the numbers (I’m sure you already have crunched all the numbers) but common sense would lead one to realize that these minimal costs are negligible compared to the gain in healthcare savings.

Of course, this assumes that the policy will reduce the consumption of sugary beverages. The ban only limits the size of the cup. There is no ban on getting re-fills right? Will re-fills be banned next?

Granting that the policy does have some impact on our behavior (most likely through increasing awareness and discussion with our doctors), there is still this issue of “banning”.

Banning is something we all loathe from our childhood. It is the legalese for, “because I said so.” Banning the sale of an item makes sense when it comes to the selling of enriched uranium to a despot but not so much when it pertains to lifestyle and behavior modification. It completely ignores what we have come to know through the science of Psychology.

Daniel Pink challenges us to rethink our traditional systems of behavior modification; the carrot and stick. In his New York Times bestseller, Drive, he reveals how the business world has ignored a half century of research in psychology.

He makes the case for shifting from systems of extrinsic motivation (carrot and stick) to opportunities for intrinsic motivation.  He explains that while a carrot and stick approach was useful for a post-industrial world, in this new age of creativity and service, business should focus more on allowing for their workforce to foster intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation can be powerful at first but is not effective when applied to personal goals and behaviors. Intrinsic motivation is more likely to change health and lifestyle behaviors.

Laws and bans for the sake of health in no way aligns with any of the research on intrinsic motivation and behavior modification. Prohibiting something for the sake of ones health or the health of the society de-personalizes the behavior. Health by coercion seems to be the way policy makers today feel they can best contribute to our fight against obesity.

Such action from the government exhibits much contempt for the citizenry. The statement made by your proposal, Mayor Bloomberg, is that we the people do not know what is in our best interest and we need laws passed to protect us from ourselves.

Daniel E. Lieberman, Harvard professor of Evolutionary Biology, even went so far as to say in his New York Times op-ed that, “we have evolved to need coercion.” His well-founded premise is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors developed a “sweet tooth” as a survival mechanism. He goes on to say that since we have artificially made sugar more easily accessible, our only hope is to rely on government to draft laws to restore that natural limitation on sugar intake.  His final line in his piece reads, “We have evolved to need coercion.”

The professor makes a valid argument for fascism on the basis of evolution. This is what happens when you completely ignore the human spirit and view man as just another animate being in this universe.

Health policies of this nature are well intended but completely ignore all that we know about psychology, behavior modification and our innate rebellious nature. We’ll see more attempts at mandating healthy living with the recent SCOTUS ruling on President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. If we are to view good health as a civil right that government should ensure amongst the citizenry, the logical solution is the legal eradication of access to that which is deemed unhealthy. The human body, as complex as it is, can be negatively impacted by anything. Stress is way more dangerous than sugar to a society. If your rationale for banning sugar is extended to stress, it is reasonable to prohibit workers from working more than 40 hours/week.

I commend you Mayor Bloomberg, for your taking the initiative to so publicly wage war on sugar. I understand that you see government as the solution in this case, however, government may be your hammer but the health habits of your constituents should not be considered to be nails. Thanks for looking out for us but I’ll continue to wage our war on sugar through a health education and individual empowerment.

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