WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Most Americans oppose New York City's plan to limit the serving size of sugary drinks and don't see it helping the fight against obesity, according to a nationwide Reuters/Ipsos poll.
At the same time, a majority of those polled said such a rule would make them change what or how much they drink.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed limiting single servings of full-calorie sodas, sports drinks and other beverages to no more than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters and other public venues. The move, aimed at curbing behaviors that contribute to the nation's obesity epidemic, ignited fierce criticism from the beverage industry.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the American Mosaic Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Friday said they would oppose the introduction of a similar measure where they live, saying it gave government too much control over people's dietary choices.
More than 70 percent of the nearly 1,000 U.S. adults polled online also said they did not think the proposed rule would affect obesity rates. About 30 percent disagreed, saying it could help curb obesity and lower healthcare costs. For a graphic, see: link.reuters.com/nes68s
However, the majority of those polled said that if faced with a similar ban, they would significantly change their own drinking habits by switching to water, low-calorie drinks or diet beverages, or simply consuming fewer full-calorie drinks.
Fewer than a third of respondents said they would buy extra servings to compensate for a such a ban, the survey showed.
The results show a disconnect among Americans about the link between what they consume and the larger health impact, said New York University nutrition and sociology professor Marion Nestle.
"This suggests that the public does not understand how what we eat is already governed by government policy, and that larger soft drinks have more calories," said Nestle, author of "What to Eat," and "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health."
The New York City proposal could go into effect next year if passed by the city's health board. It would not affect the size of beverages sold in grocery stores and similar retailers.
The proposal has opened a new front in the nation's battle of the bulge at a time when two-thirds of the U.S. population is either overweight or obese. Public health experts and government officials are particularly worried about rising obesity rates among children.
Health advocates see reducing the intake of sugary drinks as a prime target in helping people control their weight, because they are consumed in large quantities and packed with excess calories that offer little nutritional benefit.
Beverage makers and their lobbying groups have spent billions of dollars over the years to both market and defend their products, saying consumers should decide what they drink and that such beverages did not cause the U.S. obesity epidemic.
At the same time, manufacturers have also expanded their product lines with lower-calorie options and some smaller sizes.
American Beverage Association spokesman Chris Gindlesperger said the poll shows that the New York mayor's plan goes too far.
"It demonstrates that people don't want government telling them what to eat or drink. People are smart enough to make their own choices," he said.
New York's ban signals a potential new tack by policymakers, who have focused so far on largely unsuccessful legislative efforts to tax such beverages. Other efforts have targeted the sale of sugary drinks in schools and government vending machines, as well as a general push to boost exercise.
New York City's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, has defended the proposal and likened initial opposition to the one that public smoking bans initially faced. Since his city banned indoor smoking in 2003, the number of adult smokers has fallen from roughly 20 percent to 14 percent, he said.
"We are very optimistic about where is this going," he told a conference in Washington on Thursday aimed at reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
According to the Reuters/Ipsos poll, a higher proportion of people who oppose smoking bans also oppose the proposed New York drink limits, 84 percent versus 64 percent.
Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of "The World is Fat," said he does not expect strong initial support for New York's plan and likened it to the first smoking bans.
"This is a brand new concept and the first attempt to address directly out of control portion sizing in any country," he said. Still, the findings show "there's a hunk of Americans who are willing to take the kind of drastic action we took with tobacco and beginning to realize this is one of the key targets," he added.
The poll, conducted for Thomson Reuters by Ipsos, surveyed 977 American adults. It has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of 3.6 percentage points.