Why Does Bloomberg Ban Big Sodas But Celebrate Eating Contests?

Science, technology, and life.
June 6 2012 9:56 AM

Michael Bloomberg’s Wiener Orgies

If it’s bad to drink 17 ounces of soda, why is it good to eat 68 hot dogs?

Mayor Bloomberg at the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest Weigh-In
Mayor Bloomberg speaks at Weigh-In for Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest July 2, 2010

Photograph by Kristen Artz/nyc.gov.

Politicians are hypocrites. We know this from sex scandals: The lawmakers who preach loudest about chastity are often the ones who later get caught using hookers or cheating on their wives. In recent years, the chastity movement has turned from sex to junk food. But the hypocrisy hasn’t changed.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Take the hero of the food temperance movement, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has banned trans fats, pressured companies to reduce salt use, and mandated public calorie counts at restaurants. Last week, he announced plans to restrict soda sales to containers of 16 ounces or less. But the harder Bloomberg presses, the more he’s outed. He’s been caught salting pizza and bagels. He drinks three or four cups of coffee a day. Last Friday, NBC’s Matt Lauer grilled Bloomberg about his proclamation honoring “NYC Donut Day.” The mayor replied, “One donut’s not going to hurt you. In moderation, anything—most things are OK. … That's exactly what we're trying to do with soft drinks is get you to drink in moderation.”

Really? Bloomberg believes in moderation?

Then let’s talk about the wiener orgies.

The orgies take place every year in Coney Island. They’re broadcast live on ESPN. They’re known as the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. In 10 minutes, contestants stuff as many hot dogs and buns down their throats as they can manage. During Bloomberg’s tenure, the record has increased from 50 to 68. You can watch the frenzy here. It’s nymphomaniac pornography for gluttons. Year after year, Bloomberg officiates at the weighing-in ceremony, praises the contestants for gorging themselves, and brags about the millions of people watching on TV.

In 2002, his first year as mayor, Bloomberg announced that he would host the ceremony for this “grand international event.” He lauded the record holder for “downing an astounding 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.” And he assured the contestants that he wouldn’t raise taxes on hot dogs, as he had done to cigarettes. “I would like to keep the taxes on hot dogs very low because I like hot dogs," the mayor said.

A year later, after Bloomberg spoke at the 2003 weigh-in, his office posted video of his remarks. “This Fourth of July, roughly 150 million Americans across the country will enjoy at least one hot dog,” the mayor rejoiced. “Think about that: 150 million people scarfing down a typical American food.” Bloomberg noted with admiration that there’s a “science and strategy to the massive and swift consumption of hot dogs. I have to tip my hat to all of you who are competing. You are fine athletes.”

Critics puzzled over the mayor’s fetish. CNN’s financial editor called the contest an “orgy of overeating” and asked why Bloomberg would “dignify” it, “especially at a time when health experts are warning that so many Americans are obese.” But Bloomberg kept coming back. By 2007, he was using the weigh-in ceremony to extol gluttony. “Independence Day is a wonderful time to celebrate our freedoms,” he declared. “The right to eat as many hot dogs as possible—although not expressly named in the Bill of Rights—was no doubt on the minds of the framers.”

Bloomberg returned in 2008 and again in 2009, saluting the eaters on hand as “the most dedicated athletes in the world.” By now, there were reports of eaters gaining 100 pounds and developing chest pains. “I don't think loading your body with fat and salt is healthy,” one retired contestant told CNN. But “when you're up on stage and they announce your name, and you get your picture with Mayor Giuliani or Mayor Bloomberg, it's like a high. It makes you feel so good inside.”

Still, Bloomberg kept at it. At the 2010 weigh-in, he saluted world champ Joey Chestnut for pushing the stomach envelope: “Just 353 days ago, he established a world’s record by eating an amazing 68 dogs without pause, but with buns, in just 10 minutes.” At the 2011 ceremony, shown in the video below, Bloomberg called the contest

a moment for all New Yorkers and all Americans to celebrate the inalienable rights bestowed on us by our forefathers: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For the contestants assembled here, that pursuit includes consuming as is humanly possible. And each year, you should know, they push the limits of what is humanly possible. Now, children may find this hard to believe, but there was a time in the late 20th century when no man could consume more than 20 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Today, some men can consume two or three times that quantity of dogs, and so can some women.

To Bloomberg, it’s all in good fun. Shoving fat, salt, and white bread down your throat is a circus act, to be gawked at and celebrated on TV. But soda? That’s a health threat requiring government-enforced portion control. You can have it one way or the other, Mr. Mayor. You can preach moderation or the right to stuff yourself. But you can’t do both. The next orgy is four weeks away. We’ll be watching you.

Also in Slate, Daniel Engber looks at the science behind the proposed soda ban.

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