Bloomberg calls sugary drink ruling a ‘temporary setback’ for NYC—not for him

Holly Bailey

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had planned to hold a celebratory press conference on Tuesday morning to talk up the benefits of a regulation he had championed for months limiting the sale of large sugary drinks as part of the city’s efforts to combat obesity.

But when a judge abruptly put the brakes on the so-called soda ban Monday, less than 24 hours before it was set to take effect, Bloomberg was forced to tweak his message and sought to downplay the political impact of what could be a major policy setback during his final months at City Hall.

The mayor’s aides quickly found a spot for Bloomberg to visit: Lucky’s Cafe, a popular midtown Manhattan diner that had decided to stick with the mayor’s push to limit sugary drinks to promote better health among its customers. On Tuesday, Bloomberg showed up there to urge other businesses to follow the diner’s lead and “voluntarily” comply with the drink limits as the city prepares to appeal Monday’s ruling—a judicial decision the mayor defiantly described as a “temporary setback” for his administration’s push to improve the health of city residents.

“Despite yesterday’s temporary setback, I don’t think there’s any doubt that momentum is moving in our direction,” Bloomberg insisted. “We must help people change their lives before they ever enter the hospital, and that’s what our reform is all about.”

But as the fight over the soda ban heads to the courts, a larger question emerged about what impact Monday’s decision might have on Bloomberg’s legacy at City Hall and on the national political stage, where he has sought to expand his influence in recent months as he considers his political future after the mayor’s office.

Over the last 12 years, Bloomberg has established a reputation as one of the boldest mayors in the country—embracing initiatives that weren’t always popular in the beginning but have since been adopted by other cities around the country.

Among other things, Bloomberg pushed for a ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and public parks—a regulation that was at first unpopular but has become a way of life in New York and other cities. He was among the first mayors to call for a local ban on trans fats, and his regulation requiring fast-food restaurants to post the fat and calorie counts of their menu items has been widely credited with the improving the health of city residents.

In recent months, Bloomberg has cast his ban on large sugary drinks as a rule that was in natural progression with the other citywide health initiatives he’s passed during his three terms at City Hall. And before the ban was thrown out Monday, the mayor spoke of taking those drink limits nationwide as a way to combat obesity, suggesting that the state of New York and the rest of the country should take similar steps to block constituents from consuming empty calories.

In the aftermath of Monday’s ruling, Bloomberg made headlines around the country, with critics slamming what some assailed as his “nanny” mayorship. But most political observers dismissed the idea that the “setback,” as Bloomberg put it, will hurt the mayor in the long run.

“Certainly it is a loss for him,” Lee Miringoff, director of Marist Institute of Public Opinion, told Yahoo News. “But I don’t think this in and of itself will become a major blemish on his three terms in office. I don’t think this is something where he loses standing on other issues. … It’s unwelcome news for him, but this was something that was playing to mixed reviews anyway.”

Meanwhile, Mark McKinnon, a Republican political consultant who has worked with Bloomberg in the past, also dismissed any impact on the mayor's legacy.

"Courts weighing in is just more evidence of Bloomberg's reach and impact," he said. "If someone's barking, that's just proof that Bloomberg is biting."

On Monday, Bloomberg rejected a suggestion that Monday’s court ruling had cost him valuable political capital in his final months in office—insisting it was his job as mayor to help city residents be healthier.

Bloomberg echoed that answer at Tuesday’s news conference, where he displayed a 64-ounce soda cup from KFC that he said would give a consumer 800 empty calories if it were full of sugary drink. He insisted the ban on large sugary drinks has nothing to do with him or his legacy.

“It wasn’t a setback for me. It was a setback for the people who are dying," Bloomberg declared. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I watch my diet. This is not for me.”