By Stephen D. Sugarman, San Francisco Chronicle
Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s got one thing right: Americans eat way too much sugar and that excess sugar consumption contributes directly to our obesity problem. But sugar-sweetened beverages and the way they are marketed are only part of a much bigger problem of too much sugar in the American diet.
While the mayor has the right social goal in mind, he and other policy leaders should consider a broader, yet individually less intrusive, approach than limiting the size of “big gulp” soda drinks. They should tell supermarkets and restaurants that they must, in the aggregate, slowly reduce the added sugar contained in the products that pass through their cash registers – say, by 5 percent a year for five years. This would bring about a sharp decline in sugar consumption.
Individual shoppers could still buy whatever they wanted. But retailers would have to engage in a wide variety of behind-the-scenes tactics – just as they do now – to influence the overall basket of goods their customers buy. They would have to figure out the best way to sell products with less added sugar, while still satisfying consumer taste and maximizing profits.
How to do it? Among other things, supermarkets could:
— Ask some of their suppliers to reformulate their packaged foods to reduce the added sugar.
— Sell some sugar-laden products in smaller packages.
— Increase the price they charge for some products loaded with sugar.
— Alter how foods are displayed in the store so as to better feature low-sugar or sugar-free items.
— Introduce more no-sugar or low-sugar products into the store.
— Post warnings on items that are highest in added sugar.
— Promote sugar free-foods and beverages.
Big-box stores like Walmart could have a big impact. Indeed, Walmart has voluntarily promised to move in this very direction. Restaurants like McDonald’s could readily engage in similar tactics. A number of technical details could easily be worked out to implement such a plan; with the amazing amount of information in today’s “bar codes,” experts could quickly get a fair scheme up and running.
This sort of regulation is less intrusive than the ideas proposed by Mayor Bloomberg. The mayor and his public health team are to be commended, however, for trying various tactics to purge sugar from New Yorkers’ daily diets. Bloomberg has supported a soda tax, he has tried blocking the use of food stamps to buy sodas, and now he is trying to limit the size of soda drink cups.
The core idea here is to use business to promote the common good. Over-consumption of sugar leads to diabetes, obesity and higher health care costs, and we need to work together to change that. With the right sort of direction, enterprises can be the leaders to help us achieve a lower-sugar diet for Americans.
It would be politically more attractive, too, because government neither constrains individual choice (e.g., no legal limits on portion size) nor levies new taxes.
It does impose new controls on retailers – just as the “cap and trade” approach to battling climate change imposes new controls on polluters. But like those who pump carbon into the air, food and beverage retailers profit by putting goods into the marketplace that have substantial negative impacts. They hurt not only their customers but also the rest of society.