Judge slams soft drink size limits

A judge struck down New York City’s groundbreaking limit on the size of sugar-laden drinks on Monday shortly before it was set to take effect.

The law, which begins this week and gives restaurants, cafes, cinemas, sports venues, and take-away joints in the city a three month grace period, limits soft drink sizes to 16oz (473mL).

It has prompted loud backlash from the soft-drink industry, which filed a court case in October along with several retailers and restaurants to overturn the restrictions.

“The loopholes in this rule effectively defeat the stated purpose of this rule,” wrote Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling.

He agreed with the beverage industry and other opponents that the rule is arbitrary in applying to only some sweet beverages and some places that sell them.

Supermarkets and 7-Eleven are exempt from the rule, allowing the convenience store chain to continue selling its infamous “Big Gulp”, which ranges from 20oz (590mL) through to a massive 50oz (1.4L).

The Board of Health went beyond its authority in approving the size limit, said Judge Tingling.

The restriction is set to start Tuesday.

The size-limit rule strayed into territory that should belong to the elected City Council, not the board appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, wrote Tingling.

The city Board of Health approved the measure in September.

Championed by Bloomberg, it follows on other efforts his administration has made to improve New Yorkers’ eating habits.

This has led to the city compelling chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus to barring artificial trans fats in restaurant food to prodding food manufacturers to use less salt.

The city has said that, while restaurant inspectors would start enforcing the soda size rule in March, they wouldn’t seek fines – $200 for a violation – until June.

Soda makers, restaurateurs, movie theater owners, and other business groups have sued, asking a judge to declare the measure invalid.

In February, they asked Tingling to bar the city from enforcing the regulation while the suit played out.

Many food retailers are taking a wait and see approach until the case plays out, with coffee chain, Starbucks, last week saying it was holding off on reprinting menus in its NYC sites until the matter was finalised.

City officials have called the size limit a pioneering move for public health.

They point to the city’s rising obesity rate – about 24 per cent of adults, up from 18 per cent in 2002 – and to studies tying sugary drinks to weight gain.

Care for obesity-related illnesses costs government health programs about $2.8 billion a year in New York City alone, according to city Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley.

The supersize-drink crackdown will “have significant public health effects, and the sooner that happens, the better,” city lawyer Mark W. Muschenheim said in court in February.

Critics said the measure is too limited to make a meaningful impact on New Yorkers’ waistlines.

But they said it would take a bite out of business for the eateries that have to comply, while other establishments will still get sell sugary drinks in two litre bottles and supersize cups.

Beverage makers had expected to spend about $600,000 changing bottles and labels, said court papers, and movie theater owners fear losing soda sales that account for 20 per cent of their profits.

Delis and restaurants will also have had to change inventory, reprint menus, and make other adjustments, said court papers.

“These are costs which these businesses are not going to be compensated for,” said James E. Brandt, a lawyer for the American Beverage Association and other opponents, in court last February.

He said this money will be wasted if the court ultimately nixes the law.

Critics also said the restriction should have gone before the elected City Council instead of the Bloomberg-appointed health board.

The city says the panel of doctors and other health professionals had both the authority and expertise to make the decision.

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