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Which City Might Try to Ban Huge Sodas Next?

Which City Might Try to Ban Huge Sodas Next?
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By now everyone's well aware of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new plan to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces in New York City. So far the proposal doesn't seem very pop-ular — it's just too easy with this story — but the mayor himself is pushing past the criticism like he's been there before.

That's probably because he has. As Sarah Kliff pointed out the other day at Wonkblog, Bloomberg's time as mayor has been filled with the passage of public health initiatives that were at the head of the national curve, and sometimes even set it. While many of these efforts were greeted with skepticism, a great number of cities (not to mention states and even countries) eventually came to embrace similar policies.

Using this history as its guide, Atlantic Cities embarked on an attempt to deduce which major city might be the next to follow in Bloomberg's cup holder and pursue a ban on large sugary drinks.

Graphic: Mark Byrnes

In 2002 New York City passed the Smoke Free Air Act, which banned public smoking from nearly all restaurants, bars, and workplaces. While New York wasn't the first city to accomplish the feat — Aspen passed a similar law back in 1985 — it was certainly the largest. Today nearly 3,500 municipalities [PDF] have laws in effect that at least partly prohibit public smoking, with many more covered by state laws.

That doesn't narrow the field much, so we flash forward to December 2006, when New York became the first major city to prohibit restaurants from preparing food with unhealthy trans fat [PDF]. (Here again it wasn't the very first city; that distinction belongs to Tiburon, California — population 9,000.) But since that time, 13 jurisdictions have adopted a similar measure, according a list kept by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The C.S.P.I. list includes five cities: Philadelphia; Brookline, Boston, and Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Stamford, Connecticut, from which we'll eliminate Brookline and Cambridge since they are both part of the Boston metro area. The state of California also banned trans fats: we'll take San Francisco and Los Angeles as major city representatives from the north and south.

Seven counties have followed suit. Again we'll take the largest city of each as a representative: Seattle (King County, Washington); Rockville (Montgomery County, Maryland); Albany (Albany County, New York), Binghamton (Broome County, New York), and we'll eliminate three of New York City's suburban counties (Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester).

So that leaves a short list of nine soda-banning candidates: Philadelphia, Boston, Stamford, Seattle, Rockville, Albany, Binghamton, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Back in late 2006, at the same time New York banned trans fats, the city also decided to require chain restaurants to post caloric content on their menus [PDF]. In late 2007 they refined this mandate to apply to all chains with 15 or more national outlets, and in July 2008 the policy went into effect.

At least 15 municipalities have either passed or implemented a similar law, according to another list kept by C.S.P.I. [PDF]. Neither Binghamton (Broome County) nor Stamford is among them, so they're out of the running — er, drinking.

Additionally we can eliminate Los Angeles. Strictly speaking the city is covered by California's state law on calorie posting. But Los Angeles County never pushed past the introductory phase of the law, even as other California counties like San Francisco implemented a policy on their own. Since we'll wager only an extremely progressive city might do as New York has done with soft drinks, San Francisco clearly gets the nod here over its sister city to the south.

Using that same logic we see that Massachusetts passed a state law in 2009 on calorie posting. But that means municipalities like Boston and Cambridge saw what New York did then spent several years going all Hamlet while other cities across the country found the motive and the cue for passion to act. So goodnight sweet-drink princes.

That leaves us with a final five: Philadelphia, Seattle, Rockville, Albany, and San Francisco.

Now let's go back a moment and run these finalists through the filter of public smoking bans. The reasoning here follows that outlined above: it seems doubtful a city will pass a soft drink ban unless it has demonstrated, in the past, an uncompromising dedication to public health policies. That means a full smoke-free law in place for bars, restaurants, and non-hospitality workplaces.

Goodnight then, Philadelphia, with its partial restriction, and good luck, San Francisco and Rockville, which comply with only two of the three 100 percent smoke-free bans tracked by the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation [PDF]. (San Francisco lacks a full freestanding bar ban, and Rockville a full workplace ban; Philadelphia lacks both.)

Then there were two: Seattle and Albany.

If we magnify the timeline a bit we see that King County passed its trans fat law more than a year before Albany did: July 2007 to August 2008 [PDF]. We then find that King County passed its calorie posting law ahead of Albany as well: August 2008 to August 2009

So there you have it: Seattle will be the next major city to try to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces. Drink 'em while you got 'em.

Top image: zhaoyan/Shutterstock.com

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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