How the New York Soda-Size Ruling Will Change the War On Fat

Science, technology, and life.
March 13 2013 5:30 AM

The Chronic Ills of Nannya

What’s the message of the New York soda-size ruling? Government can’t control lifestyle diseases the way it controls infectious epidemics.

(Continued from Page 1)

City health commissioner Thomas Farley underscored this point. “These chronic conditions now cause a higher toll of preventable human suffering than even the most prevalent communicable diseases,” he testified in a Nov. 9 affidavit. “Their burden also uses more of society’s resources.”

That, too, was true. But the department didn’t stop there. In a brief filed on Nov. 9, it claimed that the complexity of chronic diseases made the task of controlling them a matter of technical expertise. The department argued that state legislators who initially chartered the board of health “could not have foreseen … the specific need for regulations concerning portion caps for sugary beverages to fight obesity and chronic diseases.” Accordingly:

“Because of the complexity and difficulty of the issues involved with supervising the control of chronic disease and supervising and regulating the City's food supply and food service establishments, the Legislature has delegated regulatory authority to the Department and the Board as they have the specialized knowledge and expertise to effectively deal with such matters.”


In other words, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are so scientifically convoluted that only the health department is qualified to manage them. Experts, not legislators or citizens, must decide how big a soda can be.

That’s a huge mistake. The factors that make chronic disease trickier than communicable disease involve more than biological science. They involve social science. What you eat, how much exercise you get, and how much stress you endure are matters of lifestyle, economics, and culture. They touch on corporate marketing, mass media, and personal responsibility. To address these problems wisely and within reason, you need a broader perspective. You need to understand people, their values, their foibles, and the limits of what we can or should do for one another.

In his ruling on Monday, the judge rejected the health department’s assertion of sweeping authority over chronic illness. The history of the department’s charter, he wrote, showed that its mandate was to “prevent and protect against communicable, infectious, and pestilent diseases.” The board of health could regulate the food supply, he conceded, but only “when the City is facing eminent [sic] danger due to disease. That has not been demonstrated herein.”

The judge was right about the past. But he’s wrong about the future. The reason chronic disease doesn’t look like an imminent threat, in the old-style sense, is that it doesn’t attack with the same speed as most communicable diseases. The onslaught isn’t imminent. It’s already here. If bureaucrats have no unilateral authority to restrict portion size—and I agree that they don’t—we need to figure out how to promote portion control and other good habits in ways that are effective, legally sound, and socially accepted. Limiting government’s power isn’t the end of the struggle. It’s just the beginning.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Are You Attending the People’s Climate March? Nine Reasons You Should.

Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.