Downsizing Soft Drinks

(Photo: Jezz)

In a recent New Yorker column, one of our best economics journalists, James Surowiecki, discusses Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban sales of soft drinks in containers exceeding 16 ounces. Mayor Bloomberg clearly believes, and Surowiecki seems to agree, that people would consume smaller amounts of soft drinks and fewer calories if a ban were enacted.

But would the effect result from behavioral considerations—many people will drink only one serving whether it is 8 oz. or 32 oz.? Or would it result from the second drink costing more time—the effort to get up and order a second 16-oz. drink after buying one—and more money—because the per-ounce price reflects the additional cost of serving two 16-oz. portions instead of one larger portion?  Outside the laboratory, what many argue is evidence for behavioral economics can often be explained by standard neoclassical considerations of money and time costs in demand.

Gordon Brooks

Let's not forget incentives other than cost or even time. New Yorkers might buy extra servings just to thumb their noses at Bloomberg's interference. They might even buy an extra cup to throw in hizoner's face.


It's not a matter of if it'll work or not. It's the principle of freedom. The government is there to protect my rights, not to control my behavior.

Enter your name...

How do you propose the guarantee that you will never end up receiving any government money due disability, poverty, or healthcare?

It's all very well to favor freedom, but the rest of us want to make sure that you're capable of paying for it, and that your "freedom" won't turn into our kidney dialysis bills.

If buying an oversized drink meant that you had to pay for private insurance to cover the full costs of your situation in case you ever ended up on disability, Medicaid, or Medicare with any condition associated with obesity, would you buy the insurance and the sugary drink, or would you decide against that oversized drink, now that externalizing the costs of a bad outcome to the taxpayers wasn't an option?


If you want to reduce costs to government for disability and healthcare, go ahead and outlaw candy, cakes, cupcakes, and cookies. Make most sports illegal: football, soccer, skiing, hang-gliding, and specially swimming in oceans and lakes. Don't forget motorcycles! Re-institute prohibition on alcohol, and make sure MJ doesn't get legalized. Outlaw organic foods, because they have a higher incidence of food poisoning from e-coli. Arrest anyone who does stupid stunts for YouTube, to stop copy-cats. Outlaw R-rated violent movies that promote killing. The list is endless.

Burt Mustin

Putting a libertarian spin on this, should we be prevented from making decisions that may be harmful if there is no net cost to others? I see others making the anecdotal case that me drinking a 64 ounce Mountain Dew has costs to 'society', but I am not convinced.

Is the cost greater than the 8.25% I paid in sales tax, or the 35% of Federal tax that I paid in federal tax before I could buy the soda? Assume that I am 30 years old and pay for health insurance that I rarely use because I am healthy. If I drink 64-ounce soft-drinks for a few decades, gain a few dozen pounds, have heart problems and incur medical costs, haven't I already 'pre-paid' for those medical costs by paying for insurance for decades?

Enter your name...

No, you haven't "pre-paid" your health costs. Health insurance rates for a 30 year old are set to cover the costs associated with being 30. There is no "savings" function to cover the costs associated with being older. That's why your previous insurance company doesn't chip in to cover a portion of all future bills, even if it can be proven that you had the condition at the time the old insurance was in effect.

Burt Mustin

But there is a cumulative effect of drinking Mountain Dew on obesity or health problems, as the first one (or 100) don't cause any health problems, and therefore any costs. And there is a cumulative benefit (my premiums plus the time value of money) to my health insurer not having to pay out claims for my heart surgery or a stent, because I don't need it until 30 years from now.

So what is the cost to 'society' of drinking 1 64-ounce Mountain Dew, or 10, or one a day for 30 years? Is it more than the amount I have put back into 'society' by making the purchases and not using the health care?

As an analogy, let's say I pay for auto insurance for 5 years. Every day in that five years, I go 80 in a 55 mph zone. Assuming that the only damage I can do is hitting a tree or bridge abutment and smashing up my car (and not killing anyone or myself), what is the cost to society if I don't get into a wreck until the end of the 5th year? Put simply, it is the cost of repairing my car and repairing the tree minus the taxes paid for on the additional gas that I needed to go 80 mph every day and the taxes paid on the profits my auto insurer made off of my 5 accident-free years.

It would seem that in the macro, anecdotally of course, it is likely that my activities have contributed more than they have cost. Of course they would have contributed even more if I didn't go 80 mph on that last day and therefore not hit the tree, but I still think I end up on the positive side of the ledger.


Eric M. Jones.

Wouldn't this work the same if the only legal soft drinks were 256 ounces and nothing smaller was allowed? Free mop with every drink.


what if i want to save money buying a huge drink then share it?


We do this all the time! Well . . . we used to.


Dan, are you familiar with Brian Wansink's work? His lab looks at exactly this kind of thing. The findings are that you will consume what is handy, rather famously even to the extent of eating large amounts of hideously stale popcorn just because it's presented to you in a large container. Packaging does change behavior; it can induce you to consume more than you would otherwise. (I gather, for example, we can blame the 100 calorie snack packs on him.)


I agree it will reduce consumption. I always try to finish my cup to reduce trash bag weight and because I was raised to minimize waste. I'll refill as necessary to satisfy the desire of the beverage but then there's almost always a remainder. The smaller the cup, the less I'll have to finish off.


Setting aside the question whether this is the moral or legal right thing to do I think that consumption would be reduced from both behavioral and economic reasons. The economic reasons of cost are fairly straightforward. As support for the behavioral I can only offer some anecdotal evidence.
I am old enough to remember when coke only came in 7 oz. bottles. That was enough and in my experience people seldom reached for a second one even though there was plenty in fridge or ice chest. As containers became larger (10 oz king size, 12 oz can, 20 oz bottle, etc. ) people would reach for the larger container and finish it.
Also as fast food restaurants moved their drink dispensers from behind the counter to have customers provide free labor it became very common for me and those I observed to refill or top off their drink after eating and take the replenished drink with them.

Seminymous Coward

I have, through years of practice, mastered a specialized skill for situations where I wish to drink more of a beverage than is contained in a single serving. I order two, sometimes even simultaneously. Aside from using two cup holders or secondary skills like wielding beverages akimbo, it's a strong plan.

This law is an evil encroachment of government influence into clearly personal decisions, extremely resource-inefficient to enforce, undermined by the ready importation of the now-illegal 20oz soft drink bottle, silly in a way that lowers the gravitas of the whole government, ineffective at reaching its goals, and, in my opinion, quite likely to be unpopular. I cannot imagine what motivates this sort of thing, but it is a plague.

There is a terrifying failing of representative democracy to be found in the inability to effectively react to this sort of nonsense at the ballot box while more fundamentally important issues are also in dispute. There are a thousand pinpricks against freedom like this which a rational voter can't really afford to address. I suppose the same can be said of each citizen's second most important issue, but that's mitigated by the fact that it's probably someone else's absolute most important issue.


Tabby Caat

Mayor Bloomberg's idea has merit, but he's going about it all wrong. He is exempting "milk-based" drinks, which is rather foolish as many of the high-calorie drinks are made with milk, and are just as much of a problem.

A better solution is to limit restaurant beverage serving size by calories - no matter the product. E.g. maximum serving size can not exceed 200 calories. Unless you are a serious athlete you should not be consuming beverages with more than 200 calories in them. The average American is overweight and putting on 5-10 lbs a year, we are plummeting into obesity. It IS a national health issue, a public policy issue, and I applaud Mayor Bloomberg for tackling it head on.

Seminymous Coward

Yes, this is why the average American male is ~360 pounds at age 60.

Burt Mustin

But isn't that his right to be 360 pounds? Why shouldn't I be able to eat 10 cheeseburgers and 5 cokes if I want? Who am I harming? My debate teacher in high school used to say 'You're right to throw a punch ends exactly at the tip of my nose.' If I don't hit your nose, why do you care if I do a bit of shadowboxing?