Yesterday, the New York Times released a story about Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to ban selling large-sized “sugary drinks” to fight obesity. This plan sounds so ridiculous to me that I’m sure if someone thought hard enough, he/she can come up with a conspiracy theory of government-business complex (though the plan appears to be against big businesses, it will just make the conspiracy theory sound even more fascinating). The reason why I think it’s ridiculous is that this type of plan only remediates the symptoms but not the root of the problem of obesity. The mere presence of junk foods, of which “sugary drinks” are only a small part, does have a role in obesity, but the primary culprit is ignorance and the lack of awareness in both children and adults, including the parents.

Bloomberg’s plan reminds me of a ban that was imposed in my high school during my junior year. In the past, we were allowed to bring food into the class as long as the eating wasn’t disruptive. Sometimes we had class parties, and sometimes people just needed to have a bite of something because they were too busy during the day to eat properly. At one point, littering became a problem–especially because the school was cutting down on custodial staff. Now that I think of it, the reason for the ban was probably more economical than anything remotely moral. Either way, instead of educating its students about what’s bad about littering–probably through some mechanism of instilling shame because high school students should probably all know not to litter by now–the school decides to just ban it, treating its teenagers like little children.

Banning is also a negative incentive; it evokes a sense of repression and unpleasantness. Instead of banning, why can’t we, for example, make the students responsible for cleaning a part of the school? Or the school could create some kind of reward system for being clean? Or encourage eco-friendly clubs to carry out anti-littering campaigns among their peers? When I was in an elementary school student in China, everyone who is third grade or above has to come to the school early or leave late at least one day per week to clean the classrooms, staircases, school yards–pretty much everything except the restrooms and faculty offices. What seemed to me like illegal child labor after I came to the U.S. and found that every school hires custodians is actually an invaluable lesson in taking responsibility for yourself. (Not that I don’t think it’s illegal child labor anymore, but I’ve come to appreciate the advantages of this practice.)

Going back to Bloomberg, what can such a ban on large-sized sodas really do? Obesity is not caused by large-sized sodas; it’s caused by the preference for an unhealthy lifestyle and, for the poor, the lack of choice for healthier (but more expensive) foods. The cure to obesity is education, and this education must start early–before one’s baby is born. For the unaware, we must emphasize the dangers of obesity and junk foods in general. For the poor, we must give more support, perhaps by making healthy foods more affordable. This means pouring a lot of money into education and social welfare (which might be one of the reasons why the Mayor is planning to ban instead to do something else more reasonable because fighting obesity sounds good and it doesn’t cost him much money, at least not personally). However costly, I believe many would agree that it is a worthwhile long-term investment. But at the end, I’m not opposing Mayor Bloomberg’s ban because it’s a cheap, in both senses of the word, way to deal with obesity; it’s because banning large-sized soda drinks simply does not deal with obesity. Once a habit of drinking or eating unhealthy food is formed, one can always buy more or buy others. For the poor, they have few choices other than buying these cheap, readily available junk foods. People are going to get what they want regardless if you want them to get it. I am always a believer that the only way to change others is not to force things upon them but to change yourself so that others could be influenced internally. Only when people themselves decide to change can obesity, along with many other social or physical problems, be stopped entirely.


UPDATE 6/10/12: June 9th’s Sunday New York Times article responding to the obesity crisis–How Do You Put a Nation on a Diet?