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Prevention Institute

June 8, 2012

How Policies Shape Food Environments: Media Round

Last Wednesday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a bold move that would put public health ahead of corporate profits. If passed, food service establishments—including restaurants, fast food chains, and movie theaters—would be prohibited from selling sugar-sweetened beverages in serving sizes that exceed 16 ounces. At a time when the nation is facing unprecedented rates of chronic disease—and an ever-growing body of research is identifying sugary beverages as a significant contributor to this trend— this effort to create a healthier food environment is a strong step in the right direction.

The responses have, predictably, been mixed. Critics of the proposal (including some of the biggest players in the food and beverage industry) voiced their disapproval, calling upon the familiar refrains of “government overreach” and “nanny state-ism.” Yet, a loud chorus of supporters applauded the mayor for taking action to address the growing chronic disease epidemic. As Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said during a recent keynote address, "We need public officials to speak up for the health of their citizens and not be silenced by the empty threats of the soda industry. The time for action is now."

Here are some of the news stories which made a strong case for why the effort in New York is important:

  • A Washington Post blog explained why addressing portion sizes, which “implicitly suggest what might be construed as a ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’ amount to consume” is a wise move. “Portion sizes have spiked in the United States over the past few decades. The average fast-food soda is now seven times as large as it was in the 1950s…Food research suggests that a law reversing this trend has a pretty decent shot at changing how many calories New Yorkers consume.”
  • A recent New Yorker column asserted, “Even if the ban does nothing but shift the discussion about what the government can do to protect the health of its citizens in his favor… we’ll be better off for it."
  • In his recent column in the New York Times, Mark Bittman called the proposed soda size cap "...the beginning of better public health policy, policy that is good for the health of our citizenry." The proposal, he went on to say in a subsequent article, would “create an environment for the next generation of kids in which it is no longer normal to be served a 32-ounce cup of soda.”
  • While many critics of the proposal claim that educating individuals—rather than pushing for policy changes—is the optimal solution, nutritionist Marion Nestle expertly re-framed this notion to re-iterate what individuals are up against: “Education? I’m for it if it’s focused on educating the public how beverage companies really operate.”

Here are some talking points to continue to broaden the frame and discussion of this issue:

  • The research affirms it: addressing sugary beverages makes sense. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that sugar-sweetened beverages are among the largest contributors to the chronic disease epidemic. These beverages accounted for 43% of the increase in daily calories consumed between 1977 and 2001, and continue to be the largest source of added sugar in the average American’s diet.
  • This issue is about who gets to shape our food environment and the health of our children. We already live in a society where our food choices are shaped and constrained by policies, regulations, and practices. But when the food and beverage industries are spending billions of dollars to have a say in these messages, parents and kids have the odds stacked against them. Corporate profits should not come at the expense of the public’s health, and the New York proposal is one strategy for shifting this tide.
  • Public health has a long, proud history of using policy to protect health and individuals. Tobacco policies, seat belt laws, and the regulation of lead in paint are some success stories built on the same principle of protection. Such laws were similarly controversial when first introduced, but today, they’re a given. With evidence mounting that sugary beverages can be just as detrimental to health, the proposed serving size cap is a small step that’s working toward a similar shift in norms. We want children and parents to take for granted that the places they live, work, play, and learn are going to support their health, not harm it.

Prevention Institute’s Larry Cohen spoke out on this issue in a recent Huffington Post Soda: Size Does Matter,” and cadre of prominent health experts and elected officials have also released statements in support of the proposal.

Here are some ways you, too, can take action:

  • Sign on to our letter to show your support for New York’s beverage proposal. Join us in letting the NYC Department of Health know that we applaud their effort to both protect the health of New Yorkers and provide a model for other communities around the country. Click here to read our letter and sign on today!
  • Use the current media dialogue around sugar-sweetened beverages. Browse our online media advocacy tools to help you make the case for the importance of policies that protect health:
    • Respond to coverage you come across with an online comment or letter to the editor (See Strategic Alliance's tips for penning a letter to the editor or op-ed).
    • Tap into the opportunities this recent media coverage has provided. Use this timely hook to pitch a story to a reporter or write an op-ed highlighting your efforts to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and promote healthy food environments.
  • Get inspired: Browse Prevention Institute’s updated mapper tool, Communities Taking Action: Profiles of Health Equity, and find strategies from communities across the country that are working collaboratively to improve health and safety through environmental and policy change.
  • Connect with Strategic Alliance on Twitter (@Strat_Alliance) to share your efforts with us and get more updates on this issue. 

Sign on in support of NYC’s Proposal

Join us in letting the NYC Department of Health know that we applaud their effort to both protect the health of New Yorkers and provide a model for other communities around the country. Read our letter and sign on today!

Setting the Record Straight

In his recent New York Times column, Mark Bittman poses the question: “What, exactly, is food?” Bittman doesn’t think sugar-sweetened beverages make the cut, and neither do we. See how we define healthful food, and sign on to Setting the Record Straight: Nutrition and Health Professionals Define Healthful Food.

Now Hiring: Communications Manager

Prevention Institute is looking for a seasoned Communications Manager who is deeply committed to improving health and safety and reducing inequities through a focus on prevention. Learn more and apply.

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