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A New York City ban limiting the size of sodas in movie theaters and restaurants has been blocked by a judge a day before it was scheduled to go into effect.
The decision is a major blow to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has expended a significant amount of political capital pushing the regulations as a way to improve the health of city residents.
It also represents a victory of sorts to beverage manufacturers that flooded local airwaves for months to change public opinion and painted the mayor's actions as an example of bureaucratic overreach.
The rules would have prevented theaters, stadiums and eateries in the city's five boroughs from selling sugary colas that are larger than 16 ounces. The mayor's team said the ban was an important step in the fight to tackle the country's obesity epidemic, while opponents countered that it was an example of needless government interference that limited personal freedoms.
Movie theaters and others impacted by the new restrictions complained they were being unfairly targeted, noting that the new rules did not apply to supermarkets or bodegas.
New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, which is backed by a non-alcoholic beverage lobbying group called the American Beverage Association, launched a public relations campaign aimed at the hearts and minds of city residents and a petition that attracted more than 500,000 signatures.
The group also mounted a legal challenge, along with the National Association of Theatre Owners, the National Restaurant Association and other labor and trade groups, which ultimately proved successful in preventing the rules from taking hold. In his ruling on that suit, State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling ruled that the regulations were invalid and said that the New York City Board of Health could not enforce them.
Judge Tingling acknowledges the mounting obesity problem in the city, but in his decision he writes that the new law broadens the health board's powers to an alarming degree, giving it "...authority to define, create, mandate and enforce limited only by its own imagination."
"The Rule would not only violate the separation of powers doctrine, it would eviscerate it," he adds. "Such an evisceration has the potential to be more troubling than sugar sweetened beverages."
Michael A. Cardozo, corporation counsel for the New York City Law Department, said the city will appeal the decision as soon as possible. "This measure is part of the City's multi-pronged effort to combat the growing obesity epidemic, which takes the lives of more than 5,000 New Yorkers every year, and we believe the Board of Health has the legal authority – and responsibility – to tackle its leading causes," Cadozo said in a statement.
However, the regulations' detractors were thrilled by the legal roadblocks erected in front of the mayor's office. The National Association of Theatre Owners hailed the judge's ruling.
"We are elated with today's decision," Matthew Greller, a lobbyist for the National Association of Theatre Owners, told TheWrap. "This issue was never about obesity, nor about soda. This was all about power. The court rejected the mayor's attempt to unilaterally tell New Yorkers what to drink, and where to drink it."
Greller added that theater owners believe more can be done by engaging with them and not by imposing new guidelines.
"Greater education, awareness and collaboration with all stakeholders will make a far greater impact than any unpopular and unfair executive decree," he said.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.