City Council Member Letitia James, a Democrat who represents the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Vinegar Hill and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, spoke slowly and purposefully to the members of the city’s Board of Health. Her voice was low, her word choice deliberate. And while James began by saying she’s seen the devastating affect that obesity, heart disease and diabetes have had on the communities she represents, she also said she came to her position on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed so-called “soda ban” with a heavy heart.
“I know very intimately about these diseases and their impacts, especially on people of color,” said James, who is African-American. “It took me awhile to come to my position in opposing this soda ban.”
“A simple ban will not get at the issue,” she said, adding that in order to really fight obesity, parks need upkeep and gym classes for all school children need to be restored. In New York City, more than half of adults are obese or overweight, and one in five kindergarten students and one in five Head Start children, are obese, according to the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
James gave her testimony in a conference room inside the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene‘s shiny new building in Long Island City. Approximately 100 people, including reporters, other elected officials, lobbyists and public health experts, among others filled the room.
But the group of people at whom the soda ban is largely targeted — youth and low-income people — were not present. Indeed, very few people who spoke at the more than three-hour public hearing were ordinary citizens, without an agenda.
Perhaps, James suggested, the hearing shouldn’t have been held in a hard-to-reach location, in the middle of the day. The building is located in Queens Plaza, near a handful of subway lines, but from Brooklyn is only accessible via the G train.
The hearing will not likely change the expected approval of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal, which will limit the size of non-alcoholic beverages sold at restaurants, movie theaters, delis, stadiums, arenas and mobile food cars to 16 ounces. The Board of Health — 11 physicians, public health experts and scientists and the health commissioner — are all mayoral appointees.
The testimony the board did hear fell along fairly obvious lines. The elected officials are against the proposal, with the exception of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who sent a policy staff member to speak for him. The public health experts are for it and the restaurant and soda lobbies are against it.
Dr. Kelly Brownell, a Yale University Professor in the School of Public Health, said drinking less sugary beverages has been proven to help fight obesity.
“This is completely supported by scientific evidence,” he said.
Michael F. Jacobson, a founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, concurred.
“Coca-Cola alone spends $2 billion a year marketing soft drinks,” he said. “Not coincidentally, our waistlines are expanding.”
At least a dozen more health experts and nutritionists representing Harvard, Mount Sinai and other distinguished universities also testified in favor of the proposal.
City Council Member Robert Jackson, a Democrat who represents West Harlem, Morningside Heights, Inwood and Washington Heights, said he canvassed his district asking his constituents what they think. Jackson said one woman told him that, “Mayor Bloomberg can go where the sun doesn’t shine.”
To which one person in the crowd yelled out, “Alright!”
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, as he is often wont to do, brought some humor to the room.
“I’m overweight because I eat too much pasta,” he said, eliciting laughter in the room. But Markowitz, who opposes the proposal, said no one wants to be obese, and called on the city to offer better solutions to handling the obesity epidemic. His idea? Subsidize gym memberships.
Will the proposal have a negative affect on the city’s economy? That was a major theme in the comments by the proposal’s opponents. Various council members said it would hurt small businesses. And Vanessa Lockel, director of the NYC Region of the American Beverage Industry, said the “overzealous” proposal would have a broad impact on the city’s economy. Lockel said in New York City, the industry has 2,400 manufacturing, bottling and distribution jobs, and 5,600 retail jobs.
Others said this was an opportunity to show a little restraint.
“He [Bloomberg] is not banning soda…He is calling attention to how much should be considered a reasonable amount to drink,” said the nutritionist Dr. Lisa Young.
The board will formally vote on the plan in September. If approved, it will take effect in March 2013.