A ban on large sugary drinks in New York has been halted... for now

A ban on large sugary drinks in New York has been halted... for now

After months of campaigning, the US beverage industry and New York City business owners finally got what they wanted yesterday (11 March), when a judge at New York State's Supreme Court threw out the proposed ban on large sugary drinks.

But, the reaction from the beverage companies that fought the move is telling.

Despite, no doubt, investing large sums of money in lawyers and PR representatives, the responses were decidely muted. Behind closed doors, it's a fair bet to say there was much high-fiving and back-slapping.

But, not in public.

The American Beverage Association, which represents all the major soft drinks companies in the US, described the ruling as a “sigh of relief” for New Yorkers and small businesses. A short statement from the umbrella group New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, funded by the ABA, simply said it “applauds” the decision as it was a “victory” for small businesses and “personal choice”

Meanwhile, despite breaking cover from the ABA and speaking out previously on the issue, the Coca-Cola Co has so far been silent on the ruling. As has PepsiCo.

Why is this?

Is it because that, privately, the industry is aware of the direction of travel when it comes to the public health debate around soda? Coca-Cola has already started to acknowledge that it has a part to play in tackling the US's, if the not world's, biggest public health issue: obesity.

In an unprecedented move, the company launched an ad in the US in January, and in the UK this month, which offered the subtext: if you don't exercise and you drink too much soda, you get fat. Companies are also talking up the amount of low-calorie drinks they are now producing.

Returning to the case of the New York ban, it is difficult to argue that anybody needs a CSD serving larger than 16oz in one sitting. So, the industry instead focussed its arguments on the idea that the ban is an attack on what Americans seek to protect more than anything else: personal freedom and choice.  

That may be a clever PR tactic, but is it anything more than that? 

Mayor Bloomberg has vowed to appeal the decision and is confident the ban will still happen. His speech yesterday, after the ruling, showed there is still fire in his belly on the issue, as he said: "We strongly believe that, in the end, the courts will recognise the Board of Health's authority to regulate the sale of beverages that have virtually no nutritional value, and which – consumed in large quantities – are leading to disease and death for thousands of people every year."

Bloomberg leaves office next January, after three terms, but expects that his successor will finish the job he started.

Beverage companies may be hoping for a more soda-friendly replacement. But surely, in the meantime, would the industry not be better placed dreaming up some more solutions, instead of spending fortunes on legal tussles?