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NYC health board approves large-soda ban

Sugary beverages bigger than 16 oz. cannot be sold

The ban affects facilities that are inspected by the health department, such as movie theaters, stadium concessions, and fast-food restaurants. Convenience stores are exempt.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The ban affects facilities that are inspected by the health department, such as movie theaters, stadium concessions, and fast-food restaurants. Convenience stores are exempt.

NEW YORK — Seeking to combat rising obesity rates, the New York City Board of Health approved a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, street carts, and movie theaters on Thursday, enacting the first such restriction in the country.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who proposed the measure, celebrated its passage on Twitter. ‘‘NYC’s new sugary drink policy is the single biggest step any gov’t has taken to curb obesity,’’ he wrote. ‘‘It will help save lives.’’

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The measure, unless blocked by a judge, will take effect in six months. The health board vote was the only regulatory approval it needed to become binding in the city, but the US soft-drink industry has strongly opposed the plan and vowed this week to try to fight the measure by other means, possibly in the courts.

‘‘This is not the end,’’ Eliot Hoff, a spokesman for New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, an industry-financed group opposed to the soda sales restrictions, said in an e-mail moments after the vote. ‘‘We are exploring legal options, and all other avenues available to us.’’

The plan is a marquee initiative of the Bloomberg administration, which is known for introducing ambitious — and, some say, overreaching — public health policies, including a ban on smoking in bars and the posting of calorie counts on chain restaurant menus.

The soda measure would bar the sale of sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, smaller than the size of a common soda bottle. It would affect a range of popular sweetened beverages, including energy drinks, presweetened iced teas, and common brands of nondiet soda.

The restrictions would not affect fruit juices, dairy-based drinks like milkshakes, or alcoholic beverages; no-calorie diet sodas would not be affected, but establishments with self-service drink fountains, like many fast-food restaurants, would not be allowed to stock cups larger than 16 ounces.

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Only establishments that receive inspection grades from the health department would have to obey the rules, a group that includes movie theaters and stadium concession stands. Convenience stores, including 7-Eleven with its king-size ‘‘Big Gulp’’ drinks, would be exempt, along with vending machines and some newsstands.

The health board, whose members were appointed by the mayor, voted 8-0, with one abstention, to approve the measure. The member who abstained, Sixto R. Caro, is a former president of the Spanish American Medical Dental Society of New York who was appointed by Bloomberg in 2002. He expressed concern before the vote about the financial impact of the proposal on some small businesses.

The supporters said they believed the measure would help combat obesity.

Sandro Galea, who joined the board this year, said he believed ‘‘the evidence is very clear that sugary drinks are contributing to the obesity epi­demic.’’

‘‘The argument that this is restricting choice is a false argument,’’ Galea said, noting that customers could purchase as many smaller drinks as they like. ‘‘The identification of threats to the health of the public is a core function of the department.’’

Dr. Deepthiman K. Gowda, a professor of medicine at Columbia University and a member of the health board, said he recognized that the public had concerns about the plan. But he said he had seen the deadly effect of obesity on patients he treats in the city.

Bloomberg has said the plan does not limit consumers’ choices because there is no restriction on the number of drinks they can purchase. The soft-drink industry, which has spent more than $1 million on a public-relations campaign opposing the plan, argues that the policy restricts consumers’ freedom to buy beverages as they see fit.

Bloomberg has made curbing obesity a top goal for his administration, citing higher rates of diabetes and fatalities among the city’s more overweight neighborhoods. More than half of adult New Yorkers are obese or overweight, according to the city’s health department.

Opinion among other city lawmakers is mixed. Several City Council members, including many members of the council’s minority caucus, said the plan would adversely affect small businesses, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. A resolution against the plan has been circulated in the City Council, but the speaker, Christine C. Quinn, has not put the measure to a vote.

Six in 10 residents said they thought the plan was a bad idea in a recent poll by The New York Times. But advocates have argued that public opinion on health measures can change over time.

Pamela Brier, the president of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn and a member of the health board, said she recognized that ‘‘there a lot of unhappy people’’ who oppose the plan. But she praised the health department for the proposal, saying that New Yorkers would adjust to the smaller sizes. ‘‘Over time, it does become the new norm,’’ she said.

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