What intrigues us most about Justice Milton Tingling’s decision invalidating New York City’s ban on large sugary soft drinks is that his opinion contained nothing we all hadn’t heard before. The judge said the ban was “arbitrary and capricious” – a judicial no-no that is the legal equivalent of “it makes no sense” – and was improperly adopted by a non-elected Board of Health.
In sum and substance, these were the very arguments made by many critics of Mayor Bloomberg’s ill-advised plan in the months since the rule was adopted. The mayor, true to his nature, refused to budge. Yet as it now stands those arguments have been validated, and at least until a higher court decides otherwise, the matter is out of his hands.
Judge Tingling explained that the new rule applied only to certain sugared drinks like soda but exempted high-sugar drinks that also had high milk content. It applied to restaurants but not convenience stores. “It excludes other beverages that have significantly higher concentrations of sugar sweeteners and/or calories.” Under the rule, consumers could get unlimited refills of soda as long as none of the cups was larger than 16 ounces.
Judge Tingling also strongly implied the ban was not something that should have been passed by the New York City Board of Health – members of which are appointed by the mayor. He said that allowing a non-elected body to exercise this power “would leave its authority to define, create, mandate and enforce limited only by its own imagination” and “create an administrative Leviathan.”
The mayor has vowed to appeal Judge Tingling’s ruling, so it may not be the final word. But there are some frightening possibilities inherent in the mayor’s position, which involves public regulation of an individual’s decision over matters that affect his or her own health and not that of others.
Can or should the Board of Health dictate the size of portions served in a restaurant in an effort to promote public health? Can or should it restrict menus to certain foods? Can or should it outlaw alcohol consumption, even though on the national level it took an ill-fated constitutional amendment to do so nearly a hundred years ago?