Bloomberg, human rights, and the ethics of soda

Recently, a New York court blocked New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to limit the sale of sugary drinks of more than 16 ounces. The court and many individuals feel it is not up to the government to regulate the choices of individuals, even if those choices lead to death. And lead to death they do. A study at the Harvard School of Public Health claims that sugary drinks lead to 180,000 deaths worldwide each year, with 25,000 of those deaths in the US.

It isn’t at all clear whether limiting the size of drinks would reduce the disease burden, but I have to commend Michael Bloomberg for at least saying that the drinks are dangerous, which may help to raise awareness of the problem. The Harvard study links the drinks to the rise in diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. The beverage industry, of course, challenges the methodology of the study.

No one claims, however, that consuming large quantities of super-sweetened sodas is in any way healthful. People can choose to kill themselves with soda, but they should at least be aware of the danger. Perhaps warning labels, similar to those that appear on cigarettes, are in order. Smokers still choose a slow form of suicide, but they can’t claim they didn’t know what they were doing.

One problem with the large drinks, besides the harm, is the pricing structure. I’ve noticed that the largest drinks are often only slightly more expensive than the smaller sizes. Forcing retailers to sell the drinks on a per ounce basis might help achieve Michael Bloomberg’s objectives, though I’m sure this solution would not satisfy free-market libertarians, who are more concerned with private profit than public good.

But this focus on public health ignores a larger problem with the food we eat. As part of its Behind the Brands project, Oxfam recently released a briefing paper on food justice and the big 10 food and beverage companies (Associated British Foods, Coca Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé, Pepsico and Unilever). The report notes:

“Today, a third of the world‟s population relies on small-scale farming for their livelihoods. And while agriculture today produces more than enough food to feed everyone on earth, a third of it is wasted; more than 1.4 billion people are overweight, and almost 900 million people go to bed hungry each night.”

The report goes on to say, “The vast majority of the hungry are the small-scale farmers and workers who supply nutritious food to 2 – 3 billion people worldwide, with up to 60 percent of farm laborers living in poverty.” The inexpensive food and drink we buy demands conditions that are often horrific for the people who farm and produce the food. Many of us buy drinks sweetened with real sugar to avoid the perceived harms of high-fructose corn syrup, but note that Coca-Cola is the world’s largest buyer of sugar cane, which is associated with rampant use of child labor and unconscionably low wages.

According to CNN, the International Labor Organization “estimates 2.4 million child workers are in the Philippines. Many of them, according to the ILO, are in rural areas working in fields and mines. The organization estimates 60% work in hazardous conditions.” According to Coca-Cola’s website, “A grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation funded the construction of a high school in Bukidnon, which has the country’s highest incidence of child labor and the highest number of school-aged children not working or attending school.” The idea is that the children who are in school will not be in the fields. Also, educated children will be empowered to seek and create better economic conditions and wages.

If efforts to educate children used in the supply chain for sugary drinks actually do reduce the amount of cheap (nearly free) labor, the price of sugary drinks is likely to rise, which may in turn reduce demand for the diabetes/heat disease-inducing drinks in the first place, achieving Mayor Bloomberg’s initial objectives. Will the drop in demand eliminate job prospects for the world’s farmers? The ethics of food, and drink, is complicated.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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