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June 5, 2012 at 8:00 AM

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Civil Disagreement: Should government ban 20-ounce colas?

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is an occasional feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today they ask: Is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg right in proposing to ban sugared soft drinks served in cups greater than 16 ounces?

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne,what’s with these New York politicians? Do they ever look in their pockets at the little coins with the word, “LIBERTY” on them?

Under the proposal from Mayor Bloomberg, people in New York City would be forbidden to buy a cup of pop—or “soda” as they call it back East—of more than 16 ounces, if it had sugar (or, more likely, high fructose corn syrup). But it still would be OK to buy a 20 or 24-ounce diet pop, or a fruit juice, or a milkshake or a beer.

That makes no sense. If sugar is the problem, the measure should apply to fruit juice and milkshakes. If calories are the problem, it should also apply to beer.

Consider the facts.

According to the web page, the calorie content of 12-ounce drinks are as follows: Coca-cola 145, orange juice 165, apple juice 165, grape juice 240. So three of the most common types of fruit juice are more fattening than Coke.

The web page says the McDonald’s Chocolate Triple Thick Shake, 12 ounces, has 440 calories. That’s three times as fattening as Coke.

The belt-expanding power of beer depends partly on how much alcohol is in it. The web page, has the following list for 12 ounces of beer: Budweiser 143 calories, Bud Light 95, Guinness Draught 176, Lowenbrou 160, O’Douls (non-alcoholic) 70, Redhook IPA 188, Sierra Nevada Stout 210, Widmer Hefeweizen 159.

So the government of New York City proposes to crack down on the people’s consumption of sodas. It’s just a small loss of freedom, but if it sticks, then other improvements to human health will suggest themselves. Today they come for the cola and tomorrow they come for the milkshakes and the beer. And if beer, why not wine and mixed drinks?

Fruit juice already is attacked by the dentists, but is saved in the public mind because it is “natural." I presume that is why students in Seattle’s public high schools can buy apple juice from vending machines but not Diet Coke. Maybe someone will straighten it all out and ban apple juice, too.

Lynne, I’m not arguing for doing these things. I don’t want the government telling me what size of cup I can have. I am not a high school student. I'm an adult, and all these political busybodies can just pour themselves down the sink, thank you very much.

Lynne replies: Bruce: today they come for the cokes, tomorrow they come for your share of the medical bills from the steep rise in obesity-related illnesses.

Between the cost of uncompensated medical care and the rising rate of diabetes and other obesity-related conditions, Uncle Sam is going to need to reach deeper into your pocket and mine to keep up with the costs. That makes government more than a disinterested observer in personal behaviors.

New York's proposal may well be government nannyism at its finest. But the end justifies the means. Sometimes you have to save people from themselves, or at least from bankrupting the rest of us. Tobacco consumption was curtailed in this country after states began using higher taxes as one way to discourage smoking.Why did states want to discourage smoking? Because smoking kills and it eats up a lot of medical resources before it does.

President Obama has considered a tax on surgary beverages to raise billions for obesity-related efforts and to pay for health-care reform.

Besides, New York's proposal isn't about banning cola, but about banning tankards of cola. The serving size of soft drinks is ridiculous and in New York, where half of the residents are overweight, it has become a public health problem.

I wonder what our readers think, not just about the New York proposal, but about the rising rate of obesity in America, its connection to public health, and how government should respond, if at all.

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