Fat cities: Mayors back Bloomberg’s drink ban—but only in spirit

Dylan Stableford
The Lookout

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on large sugary drinks was blocked by a state Supreme Court judge earlier this month, it didn't surprise the mayor of Binghamton, N.Y.—one of the most obese cities in America.

"Mayor Bloomberg was making a point; I applaud him for that," Binghamton Mayor Matthew Ryan told Yahoo News in a recent interview. "But it wouldn't work here."

According to Gallup's 2011 Well-Being Index, more than 37 percent of Binghamton's population is considered obese—the second highest among metro areas in the United States behind McAllen-Edinburg-Mission in Texas, where close to 39 percent are obese.

As part of a monthlong series on obesity, Yahoo News contacted the mayors of the top 10 most obese cities in America to ask them what they thought of Bloomberg's efforts, and how they are combating obesity.

Ryan, who says he hasn't had a soda in 40 years, acknowledged the obesity crisis in his community.

"When I go to the supermarket and see people filling up their carts, it boggles my mind, Ryan said. "Soda, even diet soda, is one of the worst things a person can put in their body."

"It was symbolic," Ryan said of Bloomberg's initiative. "To me, clearly, he was doing it as an example—he never said you couldn't buy two sodas, for example. I think it's very smart to shine a light on the problem."

But Ryan said a soda ban would not sit well in Binghamton. "I think some people on my City Council would see something like that as a distraction," Ryan said. "We have enough fiscal issues right now."

America's Most Obese Metro Areas

Metro Area % Obese
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas 38.8
Binghamton, N.Y. 37.6
Huntington-Ashland, W.Va./Ky./Ohio 36.0
Rockford, Ill. 35.5
Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas (tie) 33.8
Charleston, W.Va. (tie) 33.8
Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla. 33.5
Topeka, Kan. 33.3
Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Wash. 33.2
Reading, Pa. 32.7

Source: Gallup-Healthways 2011 Well-Being Index

In Ashland, Ky., which sits just behind Binghamton at No. 3 on the most obese cities list, Mayor Chuck Charles said Bloomberg's bid to ban large sodas was admirable, but that's about it.

"I think his heart was in the right place but it was the wrong way to do it," Charles said. "If it was that easy, all of us would be doing it."

Charles, whose day job is as a vice president of a local hospital, said his city has taken a holistic approach to fighting obesity, recently launching Healthy Choices Kentucky—a consortium of 27 health care providers educators, civic organizations, and area restaurateurs and grocers, including Kroeger's and Applebee's—to promote an overall lifestyle change in eastern Kentucky.

"Obesity is our No. 1 issue," Charles said. "We're combating it every way we know how."

The initiative, launched in January, includes walking workshops, construction of community gardens and practical education heavy on the details.

"So you have your zucchini, for example, but how do you make it taste good?" Charles said. "We've gotta be able to change the culture, and do all the little things."

The mayor, who said he lost 50 pounds by altering his diet and exercise routine, would've taken the same collaborative tack in New York. "I would've said, 'Let's sit down with the retailers,' and ask, 'How can you help us?'"

[Related: Bloomberg calls sugary drink ruling a 'temporary setback']

Bloomberg appealed the ruling that struck down the soda law, which would have restricted sales of full-sugar drinks like soda and sweetened tea to just 16 ounces per serving.

"We have a responsibility as human beings to do something, to save each other, to save the lives of ourselves, our families, our friends and all of the rest of the people that live on God’s planet," Bloomberg said at a press conference the day of the ruling. "While other people will wring their hands over the problem of sugary drinks, in New York City, we’re doing something about it."

Last week a New York appellate court agreed to hear the case in early June. If the city prevails, it could lead to similar efforts elsewhere.

"New York is special in that it often inspires tons of copycat laws in cities and states," Atlantic Cities reporter John Metcalfe said in a recent Yahoo Live Room chat, noting there are at least two other cities (Los Angeles and Cambridge, Mass.) where politicians are trying to enact their own Bloombergian soda laws.

Not all of the mayors we contacted see the logic in Bloomberg's bid—symbolic or otherwise.

"All of us make important choices every day. If someone wants to drink a large Pepsi that’s his or her business," Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten wrote in an email to Yahoo News. "If the large bottle is banned I assume the customer would buy two small bottles. But I’m from Kansas and what do we know?"

In Binghamton, Ryan's approach to tackling the obesity epidemic with grant-funded programs, including the Healthy Lifestyle Coalition—a $300,000 initiative to turn an unused police substation into a center for public health. The center includes a "fresh cycle program"—providing bicycles to people who might not be able to afford them.

"Obesity follows poverty—people need to fill their bodies with calories without spending a lot of money," Ryan said. "It's a much bigger issue than soda."