Cambridge, Mass. Considering New York Style Soda Ban

Another local official wants to join the War On Big Soda.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban large-sized sodas in New York City is, not surpringly, inspriring other local officials to consider similar moves:

Following in the footsteps of New York City, Cambridge is considering limiting the size of sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages in city restaurants.

Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis proposed the idea at the council’s meeting Monday night, saying she brought the idea forward because of the health risks caused by consuming too much soda.

“In addition to being an obesity threat, soda is one of the contributing factors to an increasing rate in diabetes and heart disease amongst younger people,” Davis said.

Davis said the ban she had in mind is similar to that recently proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that would impose a 16-ounce limit on any sugary bottled or fountain drink that contains more than 25 calories per 8 ounces that is served at restaurants, delis, and movie theaters. The New York City proposal would not affect diet soda or any drink that is at least 70 percent juice, or half milk or milk substitute.

But Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung said he was befuddled to see the proposal because there has been such a backlash against the idea in New York City. Cheung said the soda ban in New York has been ridiculed in the media, and is almost a nightly subject of the political comedy program “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central.

“Before launching ourselves into the middle of another maelstrom, I would want to see how that sorted itself out in New York,” Cheung said.

Davis said she would like to see what recommendations Cambridge’s Public Health Department would make about limiting serving sizes in local restaurants.

City Councilor Minka vanBeuzekom said she supports the idea of limiting the size of sodas because of the health concerns.

“It’s a very good thing to try and pursue, and in my opinion to ban, but it won’t be easy,” she said.

The council voted to refer the proposal to its health subcommittee to explore.

Not surprisingly, Mayor Davis, who has described herself in the past as favoring an ”earthy, crunchy agenda,” takes much the same paternalistic attitude toward the citizens who elected her as Bloomberg does:

“It seems like the way we have to go is look at the environment, look at the temptations that are out there for people,” Mayor Davis told CBS WBZ NewsRadio 1030 in Boston. “See if that can be easier on all of us by not having bottomless pits of soda.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to Davis that the people of Cambridge are perfectly capable of making choices on their own, and dealing with the temptations that surround them in a bountiful society such as ours. Instead, she believes that it is her job as Mayor to police their food and beverage choices to ensure that they choose the “right” things, with “right” of course being determined, of course, by all-knowing technocrats such as herself and Mayor Bloomberg. When she’s done dealing with the “temptation” of large servings of soda, will the Mayor then move on to fried food, donuts, alcohol, and the “problem” of married men tempted by young, attractive woman? Where, exactly, does this new found job of the state to police “temptation” end? More importantly, where does it come from? It certainly doesn’t seem to be part of any philosophy of government that anyone in this country would recognize, and seems to more resemble the kind of “benevolent” authoritarianism one sees in a nation like Singapore. Is that the model that Davis sees for her city?

Large sodas, of course, aren’t the first example of the rise of these nanny state laws, which have been something of a nationwide phenomenon. Several California localities, including the City of San Francisco, have banned Happy Meals unless they contained “healthy” food, and a woman affiliated with the Center For Science In The Public Interest   (the “Food Police”) filed a Federal Lawsuit because she apparently lacked the power to refuse her daughter’s requests for a McDonald’s Happy Meal. In that case, apparently, the “experts” believe that parents are quite simply too weak-willed to refuse the request of a three year old, or that they’re just generally too stupid to know what’s good for their children.

Of course, at it’s root, the Nanny State treats all of us like children. Instead of accepting the fact that people have the right to make their own lifestyle choices, and are fully capable of understanding the consequences of the choices that they make, leaders like Mayor Davis and Mayor Bloomberg assume that we are really no different from that toddler throwing a temper tantrum because they want to go to McDonalds. Not only is that an inaccurate view of the way people actually are, it’s an insulting one when it’s held by elected officials who have decided to take it upon themselves to decide what’s best for us. People have the right to drink a large soda, or eat fatty food, if they want. They have the right to drink alcohol, and they should have the right to gamble. It really isn’t the business of the state to be protecting people from the consequences of the decisions they make. That’s what life is for.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Health, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    it’ll never fly in New York City, but it might in Cambridge. Population of about 100,000, dominated by universities? Yes, I can see it happening there.

  2. It doesn’t seem to occur to Davis that the people of Cambridge are perfectly capable of making choices on their own, and dealing with the temptations that surround them in a bountiful society such as ours.

    No Doug. Not only do people make bad decisions, they lie to themselves about it.

    It’s sort of like an engineering question. Do you design as you wish the material was (in this case, humans and human nature) or do you look at their true spec?

    Pragmatic politics deal with people as they are, ideological politics deal with people as the proponent (libertarian or socialist) wishes they were.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    If you outlaw Big Gulps only outlaws will have Big Gulps.

  4. CSK says:

    Hmmm. A Cantabridgian of my acquaintance once told me that “The first duty of government is to protect people from themselves.”

    I’m sure he’ll be down with this proposed ban.

  5. @john personna:

    Yes human beings are, well, human beings in that the make imperfect decisions and often choose instant pleasure over long-term gain, That’s human nature and I don’t deny exists, but it is not a justification for the state to step in and force people to make choices that “experts” have determined are “good” for them.

  6. @Doug Mataconis:

    First, that is walking back “the people of Cambridge are perfectly capable of making choices on their own,” and second, it is the false dichotomy.

    Soda size restriction is at most an inconvenience. It is not a ban.

    Oh, and the bit about ‘choices that “experts” have determined are “good” for them’ scores well on the anti-intellectual scale.

  7. @john personna:

    The fact that people might make choices I disagree with does not mean that are incapable of making choices on their own.

  8. @Doug Mataconis:

    That’s obviously a hard line ideological and libertarian argument.

    You prefer political purity to good health.

  9. @john personna:

    Dear idiot downvoter, got an argument?

    This is not a ban. This does not take away food choices. It only shapes the mode of consumption. Whether it does indeed reduce calorie consumption would be trivial to test. You just get a restaurant to open their books. You look at drink sales, and then change sizes and look again. If the total drink sales drop, you’ve improved the health of your patrons.

    Are you uncomfortable with that? Do you prefer high sales to health?

    Because “big soda” obviously has an answer.

  10. JKB says:

    @john personna: You just get a restaurant to open their books. You look at drink sales, and then change sizes and look again.

    So now the restaurant has no right to privacy? No right to basic business decisions? You just get them to open their books for your own amusement. By you, I assume you mean the government. All things are allowed to Big Government.

    As I said in comment to the previous post of F&F, we are less like free citizens and more like schoolgirls trying to keep the pedophile teacher (State) from under our skirts. The State can’t be cured and will not stop, eventually, we are going to get screwed.

  11. george says:

    This is as stupid as the war on drugs (in fact, is almost identical in rational and I’d guess effectiveness).

    Let’s take a procedure which has been proven numerous times to not work (prohibition was another example), and apply it to another substance. Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again, expecting it to work next time?

  12. john personna says:


    What a nut job – I just assumed that one restaurant in the city would volunteer.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    I’m not a libertarian, but I do not see how we can make an argument for legalizing weed and placing limits on soda. Does the government have a right to force good decisions on us? At the extremes, maybe. But large sodas are not the extreme. This is a case for education not coercion.

  14. john personna says:


    I’d really like to hear from someone well-read on behavioral economics.

    No, changing a mode while retaining a freedom is not “prohibition.”

  15. walt moffett says:

    @john personna:

    This sounds like the thinking that led to Prohibition, the war on drugs, etc. People choose poorly so for their own good we will reduce their temptations.

  16. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    There is no limit on consumption – you need to read some behavioral economics to know how changing defaults might work.

  17. Racehorse says:

    @john personna: Who is forcing these people to buy the big drinks? I often buy one big drink and divide it out among my family or put in the fridge for later – this saves money. I don’t drink the whole thing at once.
    Headlines from the future in Cambridge:
    “Girl Scout Cookie Sale Busted, Arrests Made”
    “TV Viewing Limit Takes Effect: Fines, Imprisonment For Violaters”
    “Twinkies Put On Banned List”
    “Theater Popcorn Butter Seized, Destroyed. Customers Arrested”
    “Bill of Rights No Longer In Cambridge School Curriculum”
    “Sunbathers Arrested ”

    I have always thought that education about this sort of thing is the best answer. Bans and limitations usually have the opposite effect: people will go out and buy up what they fear will be banned or limited. It will also cause more trash since people will buy more of the smaller cups. Long ago, Coca Colas were in small, 5 cent bottles. We would drink two or three at a time. That caused more glass bottles on the roads and in the trash, so they came out with the king sized Cokes for a dime. Oh, it is now time for my daily trip to the local convenient store for my big cup refill (50 cents !). Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mayor!

  18. @Racehorse:

    Who is forcing these people to buy the big drinks?

    Not to be snarky, but people are going to split along “devil or evolution.”

    It is a sin of the flesh, isn’t it? Or an evolutionary drive.

  19. @walt moffett:

    This sounds like the thinking that led to Prohibition, the war on drugs, etc. People choose poorly so for their own good we will reduce their temptations.

    It seems to me that people look at a 16 ounce serving size and then make one or two (conflicting) arguments, neither of which is true:

    1. It’s crazy, people can still drink as much as they want!

    2. It sounds like a total ban, a prohibition, on soda!

    No, that’s not the way it’s written or the way it’s supposed to work. Everyone is still free to drink soda. Everyone is free to order as much as they want.

    The key thing is that the expected consumption, the average consumption, in theory go down.

    (It would be like a “12 ounce” beer law, or a “3 percent” beer law, which I think some locales have had from time to time. It is certainly not as extreme as a blood alcohol test.)

  20. Racehorse says:

    @john personna: Oh, I am sure some mayor or city council is thinking about required blood sugar tests at fast food and other places!

  21. @Racehorse:

    I hope you aren’t sure, and are only joking, because the other would be crazy.

  22. Rob in CT says:

    I’m generally down on prohibition (the original and the second one known as the War on Drugs), so I take comparisons to prohibition seriously. At the same time, I think JP has a point about seeing people as they really are rather than idealized rational actors. And, more importantly, it’s not clear to me that this sort of rule really rises to the level of prohibition. It strikes me more as a nudge. Soda is not banned. You can argue this is a step down a slipperly slope. The policy does, in fact, arise from the same basic impulse that spawned prohibition. Of course, as much as I think prohibition was disasterous overreach, the temperance movement was reacting to real problems. Prohibition was a bad response to those problems, though.

    I happen to think Bloombergian soda size restriction is a clumsy nudge, not least b/c if you restricts sales of sodas to Xoz, but leave other drinks with similar (or higher) caloric content unregulated, you’re not really designing policy intelligently. You’re basically just looking down on people relatively down on the socioeconomic ladder (who drinks Big Gulps, and who drinks Mega Mocha Lattes?).

    As for the question of doing a pilot study: surely there are government facilities that sell soda. The government could do the pilot test on its own, no?

  23. @Rob in CT:

    For what it’s worth, some behavioral economists oppose the restriction for a fairly behavioral reason. Or an “up one meta level” behavioral concern.

    They think that people will be dumb when interpreting “success.” That is, if a city has a soda ban, and people get fatter, then “the ban didn’t work.”

    There is obviously a missing counterfactual there. As well as wider discussion of how far you should go to encourage a healthy populace.

  24. @Rob in CT:

    “who drinks Big Gulps, and who drinks Mega Mocha Lattes” [and what do they weigh?]

    Heh, dangerous ground there. From my personal experience though, Starbucks people are skinnier than Carls Jr. folks.

  25. Rufus T. Firefly says:

    @john personna:

    The key thing is that the expected consumption, the average consumption, in theory go down.

    This is what one researcher has concluded:

    We have a culturally enforced ‘consumption norm,’ which promotes both the tendency to complete eating a unit and the idea that a single unit is the proper amount to eat.

    Other researchers, including the same Dan Ariely you mentioned elsewhere, have also noted the influence of portion size on consumption.

  26. Racehorse says:

    It is surprising to me that this sort of heavy government intrusion would be taking place in Massachusetts of all places. Evidently they have forgotten all about the various abuses that were heaped on the colonists by the British. Evidently they now skip all of that in their schools and universities.
    Interesting statistic: consumption of sugar and sweetened drinks has fallen by almost 40% in the last decade.

  27. @Racehorse:

    Please, slow down and think about the words “heavy government intrusion.”

    For what it’s worth, I think “no knock raids” go in that category. A 16 ounce soda does not.

  28. al-Ameda says:

    Even id Cambridge implements a New York style ban those people who want the super-sized drink can probably go on up to Medford, Somerville, or any other adjacent town and purchase it. Or they can order 2 smaller sized portions there in Cambridge.

    If Cambridge wants to ban the sale of super-sized beverages at city-owned venues then I can see the point, the policy arguments. Otherwise, for private businesses I think it is wrong to do this.

    If people want to hydrate themselves with 400 calories of sugar water while they eat 1,500 calories of pizza there’s not much you can do to stop them.

  29. Tsar Nicholas says:

    If liberal airheads fought against poverty, joblessness and crime with the same ferocity with which they’ll attack Big Gulps and Happy Meals the country would be a lot better place in which to live.

  30. al-Ameda says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    If liberal airheads fought against poverty, joblessness and crime with the same ferocity with which they’ll attack Big Gulps and Happy Meals the country would be a lot better place in which to live.

    Oh please. Conservative airheads don’t like the way that liberal airheads fight poverty, joblessness and crime.

  31. wr says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “If liberal airheads fought against poverty, joblessness and crime with the same ferocity with which they’ll attack Big Gulps and Happy Meals the country would be a lot better place in which to live. ”

    Except that whenever liberals fight against povery, joblessness and crime, the Republicans block all their efforts, screaming about “socialism.” In fact, you have opposed just about every effort to tackle poverty and joblessness that’s ever been discussed at OTB. So maybe if you and your party stopped doing that, the country would really be a lot better place to live, and you could spend your time whining about sodas.

  32. CB says:

    @john personna:

    Please, slow down and think about the words “heavy government intrusion.”

    For what it’s worth, I think “no knock raids” go in that category. A 16 ounce soda does not.

    THIS, over and over again.

  33. @wr:

    There was a recent study, covered by Planet Money. It addressed an issue seen again and again at OTB:

    For decades there was this debate about Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.

    On one side were people making what seems like the straightforward argument: People who get Medicaid fare better than people who don’t.

    On the other side were those making the contrarian argument. They argued that there is already a safety net for the poor and the uninsured, and that Medicaid’s reimbursement rates are so low that most doctors don’t see Medicaid patients anyway.

    The debate was perennial and unresolvable. You couldn’t simply compare people with Medicaid to those without, because the two groups had different characteristics.

    I think it’s fair to put Tsar and Jan in the group who want to trust and believe in the non-governmental safety net. But what does the data say?

    You might worry a bit listening to the lead-in, but people who get the program really do have better outcomes, economic and medical, than those who go without. People who go without avoid treatment. People who get the program have fewer unpaid bills.

    The researcher, Katherine Baicker, emphasizes that it becomes a straightforward choice. You can help people by putting them on Medicaid. You can’t pretend that without it they are as well or better off.

  34. Racehorse says:

    @CB: I was thinking of the year …2076 !

  35. The same arguments are and were used against restrictions on smoking. People compared these restrictions to the Soviet Union, but the fact is that less people smoke today than in the sixties, and that salved a uncountable number of lives.

  36. Racehorse says:

    The problem with smoking is the 2nd. hand stuff. I remember there was a time that being in a restaurant was just like smoking – because restaurants back then were usually filled with cigarette smoke. I am not in favor of a lot of restrictions on smoking except to protect those who don’t. You don’t have a “second’ hand soft drink problem, unless people do like I do sometimes and share my large drink with other people: we come out a lot cheaper that way, like at a movie theater where we take some cups in and we buy one large drink with free refills (the employees say that is ok to do). I don’t think these people really think this through: a lot of people don’t drink the whole drink – they share it with others or take it on the road to drink somewhere else later.
    It would seem that these city leaders would have more important things to worry about, maybe not. It does seem strange that some politicians are pushing to legalize marijuana while pushing limits on soft drinks. Does that smoke not cause cancer? I have never heard any studies about that. Maybe some of you can answer about that. I just know that I do not want to go around town breathing it.

  37. JKB says:

    Sure people can still drink a lot of soda, limited by how much they can afford. Two 16 oz drinks are more expensive than one 32 oz drink. In fact, at the restaurant I ate at for lunch, they don’t have 16 oz drinks, the smallest is 22 oz at $1.59, then 32 oz for $1.79 with the biggest 42 oz at $1.99. So what cost $1.99 now would cost $3.00 if the smallest was 22 oz. That’s a 50% increase in cost for the math challenged.

    Given this

    The New York Times is reporting that more than half of all black New Yorkers are now unemployed, and that they remain unemployed for a year on average after losing their jobs.

    Bloomberg’s ban is obviously racist and discriminatory against minorities who are more likely to be unemployed.

  38. TerryS says:

    Would banning big gulps actually work? Who knows.

    What we do know worked with cigarettes was banning cigarette commercials.

    What we know is that junk food commercials (especially junk food commercials that target children) is that they are a significant driver of the obesity epidemic.

    It would make sense that banning junk food commercials (especially those that target children) would actually work.

    “A ban on fast food advertisements in the United States could reduce the number of overweight children by as much as 18 percent, according to a new study being published this month in the Journal of Law and Economics. The study also reports that eliminating the tax deductibility associated with television advertising would result in a reduction of childhood obesity, though in smaller numbers.”

  39. JKB says:


    Define “junk food”?

  40. Rufus T. Firefly says:


    Here’s the study referenced in TerryS’ second link. The researchers call it “snack food” rather than “junk food” and define it as a “calorie-dense, low-nutrient food product.”

  41. Racehorse says:

    @TerryS: Just how do all of these children get to these places to buy junk food? Where do they get the money?

  42. Rob in CT says:

    This is distinguishable from smoking bans. There is no second-hand sugar.

    I still think city-level bans on particular sizes of particular types of beverages are unlikely to do squat, other than annoy people.

  43. Terry says:


    “Just how do all of these children get to these places to buy junk food? Where do they get the money?”

    Well I’m sure that in your household, you only buy what you think your kids should have, and what they want is completely irrelevant. But in most households, what kids want does have an influence on what their parents end up buying. And unfortunately, too many parents are willing to buy whatever their kids want, just to make the whining and begging and needling stop.

    Believe it or not, that is why advertisers are willing to spend billions of dollars advertising on kid’s networks, they know that what parents buy is heavily influenced by what kids are taught to want.

    “This is significant when we consider that the most essential product of the advertising industry is hunger. That is, commercials are intended to create a feeling of lack in the viewer, a deep ache that can only be assuaged by purchasing the product. As Dr. Neil Postman, chairman of the Department of Communications Arts at New York University, points out, “What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer.” So we hand our children over to Madison Avenue to be told, hundreds of hours a year, how hungry, bored, ugly, and unpopular they are and will continue to be until they spend (or persuade their parents to spend) a few more dollars. And then we wonder why our children feel so hungry, bored, ugly, and unpopular, and why they are so needy.”

    One solution would be for parents to continue to use the electronic babysitter filled with junk food ads, but to make their kids miserable by withholding what they’ve been taught to want and need. This is highly unlikely, which is why a law banning advertising that targets children is needed.

    Another solution is for parents to severely limit how much TV their kids are allowed to watch, or they only allow their kids to watch commercial free TV (DVDs, Netflicks, Amazaon Instant Video, other services). This is what a small minority of parents do with positive results (happy kids who aren’t begging for junk food). But parents would be outraged if the government tried to limit their use of the electronic babysitter.

    Yet another solution that is used by a minority of parents is to keep their kids perpetually busy with lots of adult-run activities (organized sports, music classes, etc), so that they don’t have any time to veg in front of the TV. This is stressful for both parents and kids, and most parents would not appreciate the government mandating that parents chauffeur their kids to endless activities.

    Before TV, and in the early days of TV, kids used to go outside and play with other kids. Now that is a rare phenomenon.