Dr. Walter Willett, a noted Harvard nutritionist, suggested a few weeks ago in an e-mail to his neighbor, the mayor of Cambridge, that she consider restrictions on supersized sodas and sugary beverages like those recently proposed in New York City to combat obesity.
That inspired Mayor Henrietta Davis to propose Monday night that her city study the issue, a request that has sparked heated discussion in Cambridge and beyond.
Brookline, which received a recent e-mail from a Harvard colleague of Willett, may also debate whether to limit the sale of soft drinks at its Town Meeting this fall.
Davis, who has served on a city children’s health task force for two decades, said she is frustrated that many obesity prevention initiatives to boost physical activity and consumption of fruits and vegetables have produced tepid results. It is time, she said, for bolder action.
“I don’t think anyone wants to do anything that is Draconian,” Davis said. “But it comes to the point that the public health is so threatened by rising diabetes and heart disease rates among younger and younger people that you have to start thinking differently.”
Her proposal directs the city Health Department to study and make a recommendation on limiting the size of sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages served in restaurants.
“We have got to do careful work to make sure this works for restaurants and the public,” Davis said. “I don’t expect anything quickly to come of this.”
Research has increasingly pointed to sugary beverages as a prime culprit in the nation’s obesity epidemic.
“Reduction of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is one of the most important things we can do to turn the epidemic around,” said Willett, a nutrition and epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health whose work has focused on obesity.
In Willett’s battle plan, Cambridge is just the first step. His strategy is to help persuade many more to follow suit.
Most of the successful public health campaigns in this country are happening at the local level, he said. The decision of Boston and other Massachusetts communities to ban smoking in restaurants persuaded the industry to drop its opposition to a statewide law so that all restaurants were on equal footing, Willett said.
“The power of the food and beverage industry is so great that everything is blocked at the national level,” he said, “but we have gotten things done at the local level, and it can have a great ripple effect.”
Beverage and restaurant industry leaders say restrictions on the size of sugary drinks are misguided.
“The problem isn’t with restaurants and the amount of a soft drink that they serve or if they serve a soft drink,” said Peter Christie, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “The problem is about people not being educated about good health standards.”
Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, said the trade group believes obesity is a serious and complex problem that will not be solved by targeting sugary beverages.
“When you prohibit people from getting access to a food or beverage they want, they find other means of accessing that food or beverage,” she said. “Throughout history, we have seen that prohibition simply does not work.”
In Brookline, Public Health Commissioner Alan Balsam said he was recently approached by a resident, who is one of Willett’s colleagues, about getting an initiative to restrict supersized sugary drinks on the agenda for November’s Town Meeting.
Brookline has traditionally adopted trailblazing intiatives, such as its indoor smoking ban in the 1990s and its more recent ban on transfats in eating establishments, through a Town Meeting process.
“I want to make sure that if we have a regulation around supersizing that it’s done thoughtfully,” Balsam said. “I want to make sure that we have done the community organizing first, and that’s the reason to go to Town Meeting, so we don’t have to overreach and pull back.”
Across the Charles River in Cambridge, reaction to the mayor’s proposal was mixed.
“If it’s going to fight obesity, I think they need to do it,” said Sharline Thelusma, a 23-year-old hairdresser who was out at lunchtime near Central Square.
She was in the minority among those interviewed. “I think she’s clinically insane,” her friend and co-worker Melissa Duarte, also 23, shot back. “It’s against our national moral rights. We have the right to choose.”
Rights were only part of the issue for others, who were concerned about adding regulations to businesses when the economy isn’t doing well.
“A lot of soda corporations are going to be low on money so . . . then a bunch of soda factories will be closing down,” said Jesus Rodriguez, 33, who works at a candy factory. “Then you’ll have no jobs.”
The health benefits for youth and impact on business would be minimal, said Matt Haymer, owner of the local Cafe Luna. “There are so many more issues the city should be focusing on,” Haymer said. “They’re attempting to garner positive PR and interjected themselves in an issue that has no real benefit.”