Health experts voiced support in Cambridge Wednesday for a ban on the sale of large sodas, which would be similar to a ban passed first in New York City in September.
The proposal to limit the size of sodas and sugar-sweetened drinks that could be served in Cambridge restaurants would be what Dr. Walter Willett, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, called a “baby step” in an effort to address rapidly increasing problems with obesity and diabetes.
“It has become clear that these sugar-sweetened beverages are the single most important problem contributing to these health consequences,” said Willett.
Willett and several other health officials spoke at a public meeting held in City Hall Wednesday by the Cambridge City Council’s Community Health Committee. It was the first public meeting held specifically to discuss the proposal by Mayor Henrietta Davis in June to limit the size of sodas and sugar-sweetened drinks that could be served in local restaurants.
At the urging of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Board of Health voted in September to ban food service establishments from selling sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks in containers that can hold more than 16 fluid ounces.
The American Beverage Association has filed suit in the New York Supreme Court to block the New York City ban, and is also voicing opposition to the proposal in Cambridge.
In a statement Wednesday, Nicole Giambusso, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, said Cambridge residents have the capability and the right to make their own decisions, and a ban could hurt local businesses.
“Obesity is a complex problem that requires meaningful solutions based on proper nutrition, education, and physical activity,” Giambusso said. “This oversimplified ban is unlikely to bring any significant change to the obesity rate, but will instead harm local businesses and consumers.”
Willett said he “strongly” supports a ban in Cambridge, but he said 16 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages is “really too much” and that even 12 ounces of soda a day is too much.
Cambridge officials said Wednesday that there is not yet any specific size limit proposed for sugar-sweetened drinks in the city.
But even a vaguely described ban on large sodas is eliciting opposition from some who say they do not think the city government should take away their right to choose their beverages.
Steve Kurland, co-owner of Evoo restaurant in Cambridge, said he doesn’t think a ban on large sodas would be a big deal for his business, but as an individual he has concerns.
“We need to be careful about which rights we take from people,” he said.
Willett said passing a limit on the size of a soda would not limit consumer choice because if people want more soda they can go back and get more.
Josefine Wendel, the school nutrition coordinator for the Cambridge Public Health Department, said limiting the size of the beverage would instead serve as a pause for the consumers to contemplate whether they want the larger portion.
She said limiting the size of the sugar-sweetened drinks should be considered a part of a broader effort to combat obesity in the city.
Marjorie Decker, the chair of the Community Health Committee, said she will invite local businesses to discuss a ban on large sodas at an upcoming meeting.
Decker said that she’s been happy to tackle the issue even though some people have raised concerns that a ban could make the city the focus of ridicule.
“That has never, I think, stopped our city from really taking the first steps to do what is in the best interest of our community and the residents who live here,” Decker said.
--Brock Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org