Beginning of a new era? Restrictions on drink portions have a super-size impact


On Sept. 13, we learned what our fight would look like. The New York City Board of Health decided to pass a restriction on drink sizes that Mayor Bloomberg had proposed. The initiative will restrict the maximum size of a drink cup to 16 ounces for all “sugary beverages” in all restaurants and food sites in the city that need a health inspection in order to operate.

Movie theatres are affected too. This move will impact all areas of the theatre’s operation, starting with sales. Operational inefficiency, lawsuits and political posturing are assured. But so is a greater conversation about obesity and what lengths the government can go to address it.

Theatre chains that operate in New York City will have to adjust their distribution of drinks to comply with a maximum size of 16 ounces, possibly serve them up twice, and adjust all prices and margins accordingly. Since this will not be the case elsewhere in the country, it will just be a distribution issue for a small area, all competing for the same product. The cup distribution among business establishments will produce unique inventory problems, all related to cost and production. Additionally, menu boards, systems and combo groupings will all change. The bottom line is this will cost more and produce smaller sales, which is a bad combination every time.

Legally, the fight just got started on the 13th. In addition to the businesses themselves, the organizations they belong to will begin to move the political and legal wheels to stop the restriction, force it to an area that is subjugated to voters’ input, and challenge its very constitutionality. On our side of the industry, NATO and NAC are involved, but the bigger organization is the American Beverage Association to which both Coke and Pepsi belong. The ABA has already been very vocal in its opposition and was represented at a public hearing in July to present arguments against the restriction. They will bring a legal fight to this restriction, as will many other groups. But it will only be one of the tools that the opposition will use.

This restriction is coming from the Mayor’s office under the guise of the “safety” issues of public health, and therefore only has to be approved by the city’s Board of Health, which is an appointed body, not an elected one. This has political opponents from both sides of the aisle, as the bill does not get a look by even the City Council, which is elected. Even those who do applaud what Bloomberg is trying to accomplish do not agree with this path. The City Council itself is trying to force all propositions of this nature to be forced through its body.

Whatever the subject and choice of sides, there are many parties who believe that restrictions of this nature should be legislative in nature. You might think that no one in their right mind could really believe this is the correct thing to do, that it’s all political posturing. But this move is not without proponents, some just as vocal as the detractors. The bigger, looming problem is obesity in this country.

The biggest effect of all will be the deep discussion that will ensue about obesity and what role the government should have in correcting it. This is not a new subject in this column: The restrictions on toy giveaways with fast-food meals, the high profile given to companies who provide healthy snacks, the restriction of salt in restaurant food, and menu labeling for all foods and beverages have all been discussed here. The tone of our coverage continues to move in the direction of realizing that the government is getting more and more involved in regulating what the consumer is offered. It’s becoming hard to remember that we are offering choices of perfectly legal substances to the consumer, who can choose to buy or not to buy. The government is stepping in to affect consumer choice by legislating the offering. Anyone who doesn’t see the red flags is out to lunch.

The problem is the cost that obesity is creating for the healthcare system. The health-related issues that evolve due to obesity are numerous and life-threatening. Hence, the government reaching for the “public safety” rope to swing from. We can all protest about the way that this is playing out in the public arena, but obesity is becoming a burden of large consequence to the medical system. I have had debates with friends and colleagues that all you have to do is look at seat belts to know that food choices could be legislated. Seat belts are required by law in all 50 states, with a stiff fine if you’re caught not wearing them. All vehicles must be produced with them. But at no time does a person not wearing their seat belt endanger another person’s life—that decision only endangers their own. The government has legislated seat belts to guard people against the choice of not wearing one. Why? To protect the individual in the name of public safety.

For anyone in the theatre industry to get involved and lend his or her voice to this debate is fairly easy. NATO, NAC and the ABA have petitions and groups formed to oppose this specific restriction and the trend in general. So if you want to get active, you have choices and organizations to be a part of in addition to your own business. Is this the beginning of a new era in food management and distribution? I think the simple answer is yes.

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