Goodbye Big Gulp?

South Siders speak out on New York City’s proposed soda ban, what could be done here

While New York City continues to wrestle over a legal limit on oversized sweet drinks, one South Side registered nurse has laid down the law in her own home.

Not in my house, says Barbara Yancy-Brewer.

“I want to tell you something that I had to change up a little bit,” Yancy-Brewer said last month, not long after a state Supreme Court judge ruled that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s limits on sugary drinks over 16 ounces was “arbitrary and capricious” and over-reached the city health department’s powers. “I would have my granddaughter (Kyra) and two of her cousins who are all teens over on the weekends,” Yancy-Brewer continued.

“They love soda and I saw myself bring sodas and buy two 12-packs. So I’d buy them on Friday, and they’d be done by Sunday. You’re speaking of 24 sodas being done in a two-day period between three teens,” Yancy-Brewer said.

Bloomberg is appealing the court ruling. His initiative and others to promote health, especially to the presumed benefit of minorities and young people, are sparking a debate that continues: Should people be told what healthy choices to make, or perhaps be persuaded instead by educating them?

On any given day half of people in the United States consume sugary drinks. And minorities are affected disproportionately by obesity and other diseases that can be related to lifestyle choice.

Hispanic boys ages 2-19 are significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white boys. In addition, non-Hispanic black girls are significantly more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the Office of Minority Health reported two years ago that 19 percent of black girls and 12 percent of black boys in high school were overweight.

There is actually not that much dispute between 14-year-old Kyra Spaights of Grant Middle School — Yancy-Brewer’s granddaughter — and Bloomberg. “I don’t think I’d be a fan of that (the ban). I like soda,” she said, “and a lot of kids my age like soda. … I think a lot of them would say, ‘Why are they doing this, it’s not cool,’” Spaights added.

But Spaights also gave some ground to exactly what Bloomberg would do, focusing on fast-food and restaurant sales rather than groceries and convenience stores, which would not be similarly limited. “Maybe in fast food places, he could shorten the amount and size of cups so that people wouldn’t get so much soda, Spaights offered. I think that would work or something. That way you’re not completely taking away soda.”

Syracuse is not considering any New York City-style ban, but the health director of The Syracuse City School District, Maritza Alvarado, does not reject the idea out of hand.

“This is a tough one, because on the one hand I can understand that people have their right to make choices, but on the other hand all of us are actually paying for some of the choices that some people make. So, for example, higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, just not taking care of yourselves — we’re all eventually paying for that,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado, as a health professional, knows the impact that a sugary drink can have.

“I was down in New York City recently,” she said, “and really it’s interesting that you go to the mall to grab some quick food and they have the calorie counts up there. (A 2006 New York City Board of Health- Bloomberg requirement to list calories right on menus and menu boards.) And it made me take a step back and think ‘Oh jeez, I really don’t need that much.’ But I think that so many people have gotten used to ‘the bang for your buck’ with the larger portions that people see this as an infringement of their rights. Overall I think it’s a good idea, but how far he (Bloomberg) is going to get, I just don’t know,” Alvarado said.
Sugary drinks are expensive, too, another concern for high-minority, lower-income communities. The South Side of Syracuse includes a majority of African-Americans and Hispanics who on average make a median of only $31,000 per household, according to the 2010 Census. Some 31 percent of the South Side is living at or below poverty.

Yancy-Brewer said large liters of soda are cheap — and the kinds of servings typically sold in groceries that would not have been banned by Bloomberg — but there are healthy drinks that are just as reasonably priced that can replace a sugary drink. “They’ve put a new Tops here. You can buy a 32-pack of water for $3.99. And you can even take those 32 bottles of water and buy Crystal Light, which is very cheap, and put something in your water with half the sugar of a large liter of soda.

“I think the problem is, a lot of times what happens is with any community that’s misunderstanding, education is the best thing for people. When people aren’t educated on what these sugar drinks cause or what harm they cause down the road, then it’s like ‘Whatever, let’s do it.’ … It’s a lack of knowledge and education,” Yancy-Brewer said.

Alvarado added, “If you’re trying to force people to do something, I think there will always be some sort of controversy. But if we want people to change how they eat, we have to educate them that portion sizes have to be smaller, you have to eat more variety. But people who live in food deserts may not have that option. You can’t say to people, ‘You have to eat healthy’ and then not provide them the mechanism by which to do that.”
(The South Side had no big grocery until the recent opening of Tops, making it a “food desert.”)

Yancy-Brewer said many parents don’t have health insurance, and the cascade of problems brought on by unhealthy choices mean one problem after another. “So what I see is this being a precursor to problems down the road: diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, all these things.”

Meanwhile, despite his recent setback, Bloomberg has not given up: Days after the court ruling on sugar drinks, he called on the city council to consider legislation to require retailers who sell tobacco to keep the products out of sight — under the counter or behind cabinet doors.