Debate over U.S. government’s role fizzes around soda ban

Many Americans are having a hard time swallowing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on the sale of big sodas – but it’s not just about the sugar.

The micro public health policy issue of restricting the sizes of some drinks — and the strong public reaction to it on both sides — has become a touchstone for the polarized and passionate debate over the proper role of government.

“We have very deep divisions in American society, so this [soda policy] reflects that — it’s about the role of government in American life, and the public is deeply divided on that,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s clear it taps into very deep emotions, because it got a very emotional reaction.”

“I don’t think anybody in Kansas cares what they do in New York, but the larger issue [of the role of government] is something they want to fight about,” pollster Scott Rasmussen, who has surveyed the soda issue nationally, told POLITICO.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, Americans opposed the proposed limit on the size of sugary drinks, 64 percent to 36 percent.

“The real reason this issue caught on is because this is exactly the dividing line that is splitting people. There are some that just think government has to do these things, and there are others that are saying ‘no, this is precisely not the role of government.’ It’s such a clear example – this is not a convoluted, long health care bill,” said Rasmussen, the president of polling firm Rasmussen Reports.

On the other hand, he said, “Among those who support it, there is a belief that government should be in charge of things like health, and this is a prudent measure. I don’t think that anyone disputes that large, sugary drinks are good for health. So there’s this sense that it’s part of the role of government.”

Rasmussen’s own national poll on the issue shows similar levels of opposition as those found by Reuters/Ipsos: 65 percent oppose it and 24 percent approve of it.

Bloomberg has proposed a ban on the sale of all sugary drinks over 16 ounces in the city’s restaurants, street carts and stadiums. Only grocery stores and convenience stores would be exempt. If approved, it would take effect next year.