New York – Corner delis and movie concession stands around New York City rejoiced after receiving a last-minute reprieve from the nation's first ban on the sale of large sugary drinks.
On Tuesday a judge struck down the 16-ounce size limit for sodas and some other sweet drinks as arbitrary and outside city health regulators' purview.
But the man who introduced the measure, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is urging the city’s eateries to shrink their cups and bottles anyway out of concern for their customers.
Hours after the decision Bloomberg defended it as a groundbreaking anti-obesity effort.
"If you know what you're doing is harmful to people's health, common sense says if you care, you might want to stop doing that," he said.
Besides, he said, the city expects to win on appeal.
It was a sign of how aggressively Bloomberg sees the city's role in pushing New Yorkers to improve their health habits and nudging other cities to do likewise. But it remains to be seen whether the city that was first to compel chain restaurants to post calorie counts and bar artificial trans fats in restaurant food will ultimately prevail in capping soda portions.
For now, the ruling means the ax won't fall Tuesday on supersized sodas, sweetened teas and other high-sugar beverages in restaurants, hot dog carts, arenas and even coffee shops.
Nationwide the rule has sparked reaction as some celebrated the bold attempt to improve people's health while others derided another "nanny state" law from Mayor Bloomberg.
On the "Late Show with David Letterman" Monday night, Bloomberg defended the ban but he also joked about his own "addiction."
"As long as you don't ban Cheez-Its," he said. "Cheese-Its are OK. That's my addiction."
Jose Perez, a special education teacher, said Monday as he got a can of soda and a hot dog from a street vendor, "Really, I think it's just big government getting in the way of people's rights.
"I think it's up to the person," he said. "If they want to have a giant soda, that's their business."
Monday's ruling came just hours before the restriction was to take effect, handing a victory to the beverage industry, restaurants and other business groups that called the rule unfair and wrong-headed.
"The court ruling provides a sigh of relief to New Yorkers and thousands of small businesses in New York City that would have been harmed by this arbitrary and unpopular ban," the American Beverage Association and other opponents said.
State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling said the restriction was arbitrary because it applies to only some sugary beverages and some places that sell them. For various reasons, it doesn't cover alcoholic drinks or many lattes and other milk-based concoctions. Nor does it doesn't apply at supermarkets or many convenience stores — including 7-Eleven, home of the Big Gulp.
"The loopholes in this rule effectively defeat the stated purpose," Tingling wrote in a 36-page ruling that examined the scope of power that should be afforded an administrative board for regulations.
Tingling, a Democrat elected to the trial court bench in 2001, said the Bloomberg-appointed Board of Health intruded on the elected City Council's authority when it imposed the rule. He cited in part a case from the 1980s which questioned whether a state public health council had the authority to regulate smoking in public places.
The appeal likely will turn on whether a higher court "feels that the mayor has gone too far in ruling by decree in bypassing City Council," said Rick Hills, a New York University law professor who has been following the case.
In defending the rule, city officials point to the city's rising obesity rate — about 24 percent of adults, up from 18 percent in 2002 — and to studies tying sugary drinks to weight gain.
The judge acknowledged the impact of obesity on the city's residents, and noted that those bringing suit likewise didn't dispute obesity is a significant health issue, but questioned how much sugary drinks can be blamed for it. Ultimately Tingling said whether the issue of obesity is an epidemic is not the key issue here, but whether the board of health has the jurisdiction to decide that obesity is such an issue that it could issue a cap on consumption of sugary drinks.
The judge found that the regulation was "laden with exceptions based on economic and political concern."
Critics said the measure was too limited to have a meaningful effect on New Yorkers' waistlines. And they said it would take a bite out of business for the establishments that had to comply, while others still could sell sugary drinks in 2-liter bottles and supersized cups.
While some eateries held off making changes because of the court challenge, some restaurants had begun using smaller glasses for full-sugar soda. Dunkin' Donuts shops have been telling customers they will have to sweeten and flavor their own coffee. Coca-Cola has printed posters explaining the rules.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.