Last week, the governor of Mississippi, Republican Phil Bryant,
signed a bill protecting the God-given right of his constituents to
consume enormous sodas.
Dubbed the "Anti-Bloomberg Bill," the new law will prohibit
municipal leaders from regulating portion sizes in local eateries,
as New York City's soda-disparaging mayor Michael Bloomberg sought
to do before his Big Gulp ban was overturned in the state supreme
court. The bill was authored by Senator Tony Smith, who, as it
happens, is the owner of a barbecue restaurant.
More than a third of Mississippians are obese, the highest
percentage of any state. It seems safe to say that, even before
this legislation, it was unlikely that any elected official would
jeopardize his career by attempting to limit portion sizes in the
Deep South - Bloomberg's proposal, let it be noted once more,
ultimately failed to go over even in New York. So what was the
point of this bill in Mississippi? One might see it as a perverse
declaration of pride: yeah, we're fat, and there's nothing you
liberals can do to stop us from getting even fatter.
"It is simply not the role of government," said Governor Bryant,
"to micro-regulate citizens' dietary decisions. The responsibility
for one's personal health depends on individual choices about a
proper diet and appropriate exercise." A fair point, maybe.
On the other hand, I recently read an article on Salon.com about
"Harvard researchers" who had linked the consumption of soda to
"180,000 worldwide deaths a year" - although maybe only in the
loose sense in which any of the unhealthy foodstuffs that these
particular 180,000 victims of diabetes and heart disease consumed
could be linked to their demise. Apparently, Dr. Gitanjali Singh
recommends "taxing sugary drinks in the same way as cigarettes, or
limiting advertising or access" in order to "reduce usage."
Do you guys remember when soda was not a thing we had to read
articles about? It was once, I thought, one of the basic, accepted
pleasures of life, ubiquitously advertised but not much thought
about or discussed: we all agreed that it was good, that it should
never change (as the New Coke fiasco proved), and that, if you were
under 21, it was what you were going to drink whenever you went
anywhere. Even though the "Coke vs. Pepsi" question loomed large in
the culture, we secretly knew that all sodas basically tasted the
same and were perfectly fine.
It's hard for me, today, to reformulate my conception of soda.
Formerly one of life's staples, it's now supposed to be an evil
killer along the same lines as tobacco. It occurs to me that a
prior generation of Americans may have had to fight this same
psychological battle with cigarettes, struggling against their
treasured, wholesome-seeming recollections of the first time they
shared a smoke with Dad after a Little League game at age 11 or
whatever. Tobacco was normative; then it became a socially shunned
poison. This must have been startling, too.
I've looked at Coca-Cola's nutritional facts. Yet, it's somehow
hard to credit the notion that soda can make you fat - probably
because I have all these memories of thoughtlessly consuming
countless cans of it as a child without ever gaining any weight.
How many free refills did I get every time my family went to some
chain restaurant? And yet . . . nothing. No problem. I remained
exactly as skinny as children are supposed to be.
Nevertheless, this memory speaks to two of soda's main problems
from a health perspective: first, that it's incredibly appealing to
children (and we're in the midst of a "childhood obesity
epidemic"); second, that it's incredibly easy to drink an insane
amount of it. The carbonation is the culprit, as it is with
champagne, so much more dangerous than regular wine: it goes down
easy. A 20-ounce bottle of Coke has 30 more calories than a
two-pack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and more than three times as
much sugar, yet do you not feel it a little more when you eat a
couple Peanut Butter Cups? Do you not taste the sweetness, the
heaviness of the chocolate and peanut butter?
Sometimes I think the main reason behind the success of both
Coke and Pepsi is that they're not that good. I mean, they're good,
yes, but they're not as good as Reese's Cups, for instance. The
flavor is nice but not particularly interesting. It feels good to
drink it, but no amount of it is ever really "satisfying." The
caffeine is enough to keep you awake but not enough to make you
jittery, no matter how much you drink. It's like TV: so insidiously
painless that you can consume it without noticing. There's no
reason not to keep drinking it all day - until you think of the
So what's going to happen here, finally? Will we one day look at
soda drinkers the same way we now look at smokers - that is, with
mixed bafflement and scorn? Will I, as a soda drinker, one day be
seen as a sad throwback to a stupider era? I don't want to be the
last fool, refusing with curmudgeonly stubbornness to acknowledge
obvious and crucial health concerns. At that point, I'll just give
up on Coca-Cola rather than face the shame.
But I sort of hope it doesn't turn out that way. I'm not exactly
siding with Mississippi (anything but that!): I realize that soda
companies, like tobacco companies, are helping to destroy the lives
of people who don't know better, and these people deserve to be
protected. Still - can soda really be that bad? I guess I'm still
holding out hope that the scientists will change their minds and
decide that it has some good points after all.
I mean, I feel fine. 65 grams of sugar, really? That can't be
right, can it?