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Sugary drinks ban begs the question -- who has the right to decide what you consume?

Consuming too much sugar can lead to obesity; few people would argue to the contrary. Yet not everyone agrees, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly affirmed, that solving nutrition issues is the right and responsibility of the government. Unfortunately his latest proposal, approved Thursday by the New York Board of Health, will do nothing to solve obesity in New York. Worse, it will further entrench the idea that New York is bad for business.

According to a New York Times poll, the majority of New Yorkers surveyed said they did not want the proposed big-soda ban. Perhaps they recognize that the ban is a complete waste of money.  There’s nothing to prevent customers from purchasing multiple bottles of 16 ounce drinks at restaurants or movie theaters. Sweetened drinks in bottles greater than 16 ounces will still be available in grocery and convenience stores. What the proposal will do is inconvenience consumers by micromanaging their drinks’ sizes.

While any product if consumed in great enough quantities can cause negative health effects, the greater danger we face as Americans is in giving up the right to make our own choices.

Furthermore, the new regulations will hurt smaller drink makers like Honest Tea, whose product is sold in 16.9 ounce bottles—standard in the industry—and has only 70 calories per bottle. While larger manufacturers might be able to create special bottles for New York City, some smaller companies may not be able to do the same and will simply have to suffer the loss of sales. As Honest Tea CEO and co-founder Seth Goldman noted in his Wall Street Journal op-ed, even if his company did sell its product in special bottles for New York City, what happens when city officials decide to arbitrarily reduce allowable bottle sizes again?

Goldman hits on a fundamental underlying driver in Bloomberg’s proposal: if less sugar is good, no sugar is better. Public health advocates like Mayor Bloomberg assign value judgments to products like sugar, fat, salt and alcohol: bad in any measure. They see no benefits to the consumption of certain products. They believe that adults are unable to make responsible decisions and control their own consumption choices, so the government must do it for them—in the name of public health, of course.

The constant onslaught of regulation that has been the hallmark of Bloomberg’s administration could hurt New York’s economy by scaring away new businesses. But there’s a much scarier aspect to the mayor’s proposal. While it may be silly to worry about whether we can still get our super-sized sodas, it raises the very important question of who has the right to make choices about what an individual person consumes? And when governments adopt “nudging” policies that are meant to drive us to the choices lawmakers want us to make, when does that become control?

While any product if consumed in great enough quantities can cause negative health effects, the greater danger we face as Americans is in giving up the right to make our own choices. Every person is different—including in their dietary needs. It should be the sole responsibility of each adult to determine what foods his or her body needs to stay healthy—and when to indulge their sweet tooth.

Michelle Minton is a Fellow in Consumer Policy Studies for the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a contributor to Openmarket.org.