Who thinks New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nanny-state ban on (some) large sugary drinks not only won’t work, but will backfire? The very researchers whose work Bloomberg cited as justification for proposing the ban. From The Atlantic:
Yes, we have found that when people are given larger portions, they do drink or eat substantially more. But to claim that these results imply that the ban will be effective is to ignore our larger body of work. In our experiments, subjects were given larger or smaller portions of food in a dining or party setting, where they were unlikely to notice portion size. It is exactly because participants weren’t paying attention that we got the results we did.
The mayor’s approach, however, overtly denies people portions they are used to be able to get whenever they want them. In similar lab settings, this kind of approach has inspired various forms of rebellion among study participants. For example, openly serving someone lowfat or reduced-calorie meals tends to lead to increased fat or calorie consumption over the whole day. People reason that because they were forced to be good for one meal, they can splurge on snacks and desserts at later meals.
The researchers, Prof. Brian Wansink and David Just of Cornell University, note the danger of taking a (pardon the pun) ham-fisted approach to health policy is that it will discourage future attempts to promote good health. And they leave no doubt that Bloomberg’s approach will fail:
150 years of research in food economics tells us that people get what they want. Someone who buys a 32-ounce soft drink wants a 32-ounce soft drink. He or she will go to a place that offers fountain refills, or buy two. If the people who want them don’t have much money, they might cut back on fruits or vegetables or a bit of their family meal budget.
Who buys large soft drinks? It’s not just the people who may have some disregard for their weight. It may also be the construction worker who buys a single drink and nurses it all day. It may be the family of three who decides to split a single drink to save money.
They also point out that Bloomberg might have been more successful had he created incentives for beverage companies to promote their lower-calorie products — and that he expressly rejected such an approach.
It seems to me the researchers’ explanations strike at the heart of the reason we can’t legislate good habits without resorting to Draconian measures (in this case, for example, a total ban on sugary drinks — although even that would fail if the ban didn’t extend well beyond New York City’s borders). And, of course, unintended consequences that could end up being worse than the intended ones.
– By Kyle Wingfield