Editor’s Note: A state Supreme Court judge in Manhattan invalidated the sugary beverage ban after this article was originally published. Mayor Bloomberg has stated that he intends to fight the ruling.
CKE, parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., doesn’t have any stores in New York City. In fact, it doesn’t have any in the Empire State at all.
But that hasn’t stopped CEO Andy Puzder from speaking out against the sugary-beverage ban proposed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed by the city’s Board of Health in September.
“Mayor Bloomberg’s foray into this area is misguided. I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s anti-American. Every time you increase the power of government, you decrease our individual liberties,” Puzder says. “And it’s very difficult to see what’s a more personal decision a person can make than what they eat. Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to cut back on those choices is really an attempt to try to change the government structure that we’ve had for the past 235 years.”
Puzder’s passion for the subject doesn’t come out of left field, even as an executive of a brand unaffected by the ban. After all, this isn’t the first time Bloomberg has attempted to regulate the city’s foodservice options in an effort to curb the obesity crisis in New York and across the country. And eight years after the mayor introduced his first food regulation—a citywide trans fat restriction—the restaurant industry continues to see a ripple effect from his actions, from his office in New York City to CKE’s Carpinteria, California, headquarters.
The line in the sand
While Puzder’s words may seem aggressive, maybe even rash, he’s not the only quick-serve executive who believes the sugary-beverage ban has crossed a line that even the mayor’s previous regulations did not.
“Sometimes the ideas people have in terms of how to tackle a problem look good in a textbook setting,” says Jamie Richardson, vice president of White Castle. “It might look good in an academic setting. But when you try to implement those ideas in a real-world setting, it has horrific effects on real people and real neighborhoods. This is a classic example of government gone mad, [of] aggressive overreach.”
Industry leaders, it’s clear, are no supporters of the sugary-beverage ban. But they aren’t the only ones crying foul over the regulation, which goes into effect March 12 and prohibits the sale of sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces in the city’s restaurants, food carts, delis, movie theaters, stadiums, and arenas.
A September New York Times poll found that a full 60 percent of New Yorkers considered the ban a “bad idea,” while only 36 percent considered it a “good idea.” Nearly 500,000 people support the New Yorkers for Beverage Choices organization, a coalition opposed to the recent ban. Some 2,400 individuals, businesses, and community organizations, meanwhile, have signed up as official coalition members, including dozens of national quick-service chains.
“What the mayor and the health commission are telling people is that we’re not educated. That’s not what we found,” says Eliot Hoff, spokesman for New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. “As I visited the neighborhoods in the city, especially in the … lower socioeconomic communities, the feeling on the street is that people are offended that their mayor and their health commissioner and their department of health don’t think they know that there’s a health risk to overindulging in anything.”
Whether or not the mayor’s office believes that, the obesity problem in New York, much like in the rest of the country, is indeed severe. Bloomberg said in a September 16 radio address that almost 60 percent of New York adults and 40 percent of children are overweight or obese.
“We took this step because, as a growing number of health experts have pointed out, added sugars—especially those found in sugary drinks—are one of the key drivers of the obesity epidemic in New York and across the United States,” Bloomberg said in his address. “Americans get more excess calories from sodas and other sugary beverages than any other individual source. Even worse, these drinks flood our bodies with sugar without making us feel full; that’s why we’re targeting sugary drinks and not other junk foods.”
Just what—and who—the latest regulation targets, though, has become a point of contention in the food-regulation sphere.
The problem with regulations
Quick-service executives are concerned about the sugary-beverage ban for a number of reasons. For some, like Puzder and Richardson, the simple matter of telling Americans what they can and cannot eat or drink goes against our nation’s founding
“The question we’re all asking is, If this is happening with soft drinks, what’s next?” Richardson says. “Portion-controlled plates? The death of the buffet? It just feels that this is a real overreach.”
Others believe the regulation is massively flawed. Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs for the National Restaurant Association (NRA), says one major problem with the sugary beverage ban is that it does not affect convenience stores or supermarkets. In theory, a customer could grab a burger and fries from McDonald’s and walk across the street to pick up a two-liter at 7-Eleven.
Another problem, DeFife says, is that there isn’t much science to back up the mayor’s claims that the ban will help fight obesity.
“This is a setting of policy under the rubric of food safety or health where they don’t have any real, solid evidence that there’s something here, or that their regulation is meeting their objective,” DeFife says. “There is something in the fundamental tenets of government regulation that you can’t purport to be solving one problem by taking an action that doesn’t really relate to the problem you’re trying to solve.”
Most operators, however, are worried about the business implications of limiting the size of drinks. White Castle, for example, has 45 company-owned restaurants in the New York metro area, and its small, medium, and large soft-drink sizes are 21, 30, and 44 ounces, respectively. Richardson says the stores will have to roll out thousands of new cups to comply with the law.
A similar situation will unfold in the New York–area Blimpie stores, says Pat Conlin, president of Blimpie Long Island. The company will have to replace its 21- and 32-ounce cups, just a few years after it replaced all of its menuboards under Mayor Bloomberg’s menu-labeling mandate.
“So now we’re going to have to employ another cup, just for New York City,” Conlin says. “We’re not going to have the volume and usage of those cups, so they’re going to be expensive. And we’re going to have to redo those menuboards again.”