WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New York City's top health official on Thursday shot back at critics who have blasted the city's plan to limit the sale of oversized sugary drinks such as soda, calling beverage industry opposition ridiculous.
The proposed ban, which caps most sugar-sweetened beverages at 16 ounces and carries a $200 fine for vendors that do not comply, met immediate backlash from beverage companies and others who argue it is government overreach, but was lauded by public health experts.
"It's not saying 'no' to people. It's saying, 'Are you sure? Do you really want that?'" Thomas Farley, New York City's health commissioner, said. "It's sending people a message while giving people the freedom to drink as much as they want."
Speaking at an anti-soda conference in Washington, Farley said that drink makers are following the same play-book as tobacco companies that push back against government action aimed at protecting consumers from harmful products.
Coca-Cola Co and McDonald's Corp along with beverage industry groups have said consumers should be able to make their own drink choices and that sodas are not to blame for the nation's soaring obesity rates.
The industry has launched a wave of ads attacking New York City's plan, which New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week.
Sugary drink consumption may just be a part of the U.S. obesity epidemic, but the products are the largest single source of sugar in the diet and have a major impact on health, Farley said. Reducing obesity by just 10 percent in New York City would save about 500 lives a year, he added.
"It's ridiculous to say we shouldn't try something that's only going to solve a portion of the problem," he said at the event, which was sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that has long advocated against junk food.
American Beverage Association spokeswoman Karen Hanretty, in a statement, defended the group's response and said Bloomberg's proposal "has gone too far with a proposal that will do nothing to reduce the serious problem of obesity in America."
The city's cup size ban will be submitted June 12 to the New York City Board of Health, which will then vote on it after a three-month comment period. If approved by the board, the ban would take effect early next year.
The beverage industry is expected to spend massive amounts of money to fight it. Legal analysts have said drink makers face an uphill battle in the courts if they opt for legal challenges to block the effort.
Public health experts have embraced Bloomberg's plan and see it as an approach that could be applied in communities across the country.
Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said targeting sugar sweetened beverages makes sense because they offer empty calories with no nutritional value.
Another city's mayor, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, told the conference that he has seen some progress from drink makers selling smaller sizes and low-calorie or no-calorie products, but that so far they are not owning up to their role in the nation's weight struggle.
"The industry needs to at least acknowledge that they are part of the problem," he said.
Reporting By Susan Heavey; Editing by Vicki Allen and Bill Trott