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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A cap on soda size - such as the one New York City regulators are trying to pass - would have the biggest impact on overweight kids and young adults, a new study suggests.
When limited to drinks sold in restaurants and event spaces, researchers found the policy is not likely to disproportionately affect poorer patrons, which has been an argument against the measure.
"We want to target the right people, and want it so it's not unfairly targeted at, for example, resource-poor communities," said Dr. Y. Claire Wang, who worked on the study.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration is currently in court trying to defend a law banning the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, theaters and stadiums, part of an attempt to lower obesity rates. Arguments were made in the state's appeals court yesterday.
The ban is being opposed by the beverage industry.
"This new study shows that our portion cap rule will likely lead to a decrease in calories consumed, especially among the people who need the help the most, obese and overweight youth," said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley in a statement.
"The rule is a reasonable and effective response to the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes that are killing thousands of New Yorkers a year."
Although the full extent of the policy's effects won't be clear until researchers perform before and after studies - if the ban becomes official at all - Wang said the new findings give clues to its potential impact.
She and Seanna Vine from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health analyzed nutrition surveys filled out by over 19,000 U.S. kids and adults in 2007 through 2010.
Survey participants reported everything they had eaten or drank in the past 24 hours.
About 71 percent of children and 57 percent of adults said they'd had at least one sugary drink in the last day. However, just 7 to 8 percent of them had bought a drink greater than 16 ounces at a restaurant, sporting event or other food service establishment.
Low-income people in the study reported drinking more sugary beverages than their wealthier peers in general - but they weren't any more likely to buy large restaurant drinks, according to findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Young, overweight or obese people were more likely to buy large drinks that would be banned in New York City than thinner teens and young adults, however. Between 12 and 14 percent of them said they'd bought one of those beverages in the last day.
DRINKING WHAT'S THERE?
Wang's team calculated that if those people bought a 16-ounce drink instead under the new law, the average soda-drinking adult would get 102 fewer calories per day and the average soda-drinking kid would consume 99 fewer calories.
However, the researchers couldn't predict how many people would get around the ban and thwart calorie reduction by simply ordering more than one 16-ounce drink.
"The law doesn't put any restriction on restaurants who wanted to offer free refills or two-for-one deals," Wang told Reuters Health.
She said public health researchers are banking on the idea of "default bias" - that people will drink 24 ounces of soda if it's in front of them, or just 16 ounces if that's what's there instead.
The American Beverage Association, a lead plaintiff in the case against New York City's proposed ban, did not comment directly on the findings, but said in a statement to Reuters Health that "Obesity is a complex issue with many contributing factors beyond one type of food or beverage."
Citing rising obesity rates and a recent report that found U.S. children and adults consumed fewer calories from sugary soft drinks in 2010 than they did in 2000 - see Reuters Health story here - reut.rs/18zcXEd - the association added, "It's time for a comprehensive approach to addressing obesity."
"The findings are very valuable given how little we know at this point about whether New York City's ban would be effective or not," said Daniel Taber, a health policy researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He agreed it was good to see such a ban would not affect the poor more than others.
"That's one of the most common critiques I hear," Taber, who wasn't involved in the new research, told Reuters Health.
But he echoed Wang's comments that there are still question marks as to how the policy might play out in real life.
"Any arguments for or against it are just speculation at this point unless you implement it, to some degree," Taber said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/13C7s61 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online June 12, 2013.