Before cities start trying to ban sweetened drinks over a certain size, they ought to recognize the many ways in which public policy in the United States promotes their consumption. Beyond the federal agricultural subsidies that make sweeteners artificially cheap, state sales tax law provides an exemption for fizzy beverages that are chock full of calories and utterly devoid of nutritional value. Against these forces, a proposal to limit the serving size for sweetened beverages at dining establishments in Cambridge seems simultaneously bothersome and inconsequential — an inconvenience to restaurateurs and diners that wouldn’t actually do much to make city residents thinner.
Granted, Cambridge Mayor Henrietta Davis showed a certain level of pluck by bringing up the idea at a City Council meeting last week. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been tarred and feathered in that city’s local media — or is it caramelized and carbonated? — for proposing to allow servings no larger than 16 ounces for most bottled or fountain drinks that contain more than 25 calories per 8 ounces. Davis wants to follow suit anyway.
The proposed soda restrictions highlight the divide between two parts of the Cambridge psyche. A global capital of scientific research might be forgiven for moving aggressively to put public health research into action. But there’s also a competing tendency — appropriate for a free-speech bastion — to uphold Cantabrigians’ right to decide things for themselves.
Plus, some consistency is in order. What’s the argument for limiting soda sizes at restaurants but not serving sizes at Toscanini’s, the Cambridge institution whose ice creams are no one’s idea of healthy fare but are many residents’ perfect summer treat?
In the fight against empty calories in Massachusetts, the most effective path is obvious: remove the sales tax exemption. It’s also the fairest approach, because most foods are exempt from taxation only because they’re considered necessities — a description that applies to neither a jumbo Coke nor a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. Public policy shouldn’t actively encourage the consumption of soda, ice cream, or any other sugary foods. Public health advocates in Cambridge and around the Commonwealth should steer away from divisive bans on serving sizes, and focus their energies instead on getting rid of the sales-tax break on soda and sweets.