Presented on July 24, 2012 before the New York City Board of Health:
Good afternoon and thank you to the members of the Board of Health for the opportunity to speak today about Article 81 – Food Preparation and Food Service Establishments – also known as the proposal to limit some sugar-sweetened beverage purchases to sixteen ounces.
My name is Sheelah Feinberg, and I am the Executive Director of the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City. We are an organization based in each borough that has worked with more than one hundred health and youth focused community groups to raise awareness around tobacco control and prevention. It has been said that sugar is “the new tobacco.” I’m here today to address that comparison directly.
The Coalition and its partners are grateful to have a Mayor who is committed to improving public health, and our combined efforts have yielded unprecedented success. Thanks to bold policies, higher cigarette taxes, hard-hitting media campaigns, and cessation services to help smokers quit, we have reduced smoking in New York City to an historic low of 14%. This means thousands of lives saved, increased life expectancy, and improved health for all New Yorkers.
With this success, tobacco will soon no longer be the number one cause of preventable death and disease in New York. However, this immense achievement is bittersweet, as it is not only because of tobacco control efforts, but also because of the sharp rise of obesity. Sugary beverages are the primary source of excess calories in our diets and a main culprit in this new epidemic. Currently, 58% of New York City residents are overweight or obese, which is a shocking 3.4 million people. Similar to tobacco use, obesity rates are highest among low-income New Yorkers, Latinos, and African-Americans. Tobacco and soda companies both aggressively target these populations in their marketing.
Tobacco and soda companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars in New York State each year marketing their products to youth. It is no coincidence that 90% of smokers start before their eighteenth birthday, and adult obesity is often tied to habits learned during childhood. When 21% of New York City youth enter adulthood already obese, we are setting them up for a lifetime of preventable health problems and disease. New York spends $8 billion annually on health care costs directly related to tobacco use and $11 billion related to obesity. We cannot afford the loss of life or the economic burden caused by these preventable diseases.
New York City was considered a public health pioneer when we passed the 2002 Smoke-Free Air Act in spite of negative press coverage and big spending by big tobacco to defeat the proposal. Now it is the soda companies’ turn. They are spending tens of millions of dollars nationwide to defeat proposed taxes and regulations on their products. We encourage the Board to weigh science and health more heavily than a well-funded P.R. campaign. Changing social norms takes time and you have to start somewhere. For decades, public health advocates have worked tirelessly so that Fred Flintstone cannot promote Winston cigarettes, people can no longer smoke on planes, and New York City bars, restaurants, and public parks are all smoke-free.
Some critics say that instead of restricting the amount of soda people can buy, the City should simply provide more education. Education is indeed a critical part of improving public health, but it is only one element of what must be a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach. This proposal is similar to successful tobacco control policy because it is, in and of itself, community education. The attention and media coverage around portion size has been tremendous for raising awareness around the health impact of excessive sugar consumption. That’s why policy change is such an effective public health tool – it works.
In closing, both tobacco use and excessive sugar consumption cause hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths in the United States each year. Raising awareness is not enough. Education alone will not lead to significantly lower obesity rates, much like simply knowing the deadly health effects of cigarettes did not lead to historic declines in smoking. Along with education, we need bold approaches such as the proposed limit on sugar-sweetened beverages to combat obesity. In doing so, New York City can continue to be a public health pioneer and lead the way for the rest of the country around sugar and obesity — just as it did with tobacco control.