Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Bloomberg Dilemmas

The New York Times reported yesterday that New York City's influential mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is proposing further legislation to regulate the sale of cigarettes in the Big Apple.  The proposed bill would make it illegal for stores to display cigarettes in open view to the public, thus making New York the first city in the nation to require retailers to completely hide their tobacco products. The third term mayor also went a step further by proposing harsher penalties to retailers who avoid tobacco taxes by selling "smuggled cigarettes."  

According to Bloomberg, "such displays suggest that smoking is a normal activity, and they invite young people to experiment with tobacco."  His critics, who include James Calvin, President of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, say that “it’s patently absurd, can you think of any other retail business that is licensed to sell legal products that is required to hide them from the view of its customers? I can’t.”

Bloomberg has proven that he isn't afraid to take a seemingly controversial stand in the name of keeping New York healthy.  He has waged an active war against trans-fats, salt and sugar consumption, and smoking in the five boroughs.  In fact, his latest proposal comes just days after a judge nixed the Bloomberg's notorious ban on selling sugary soft drinks larger than sixteen ounces

While I believe that it's difficult to disagree with Bloomberg's ultimate goal of reducing the number of empty calories in diet of New Yorkers, I'd argue that it's rather easy to disagree Bloomberg's plan on achieving that goal.  Despite the wide array of consumer products already subject to government regulation, a list that includes everything from medicine to transportation to investments, what I find unsettling about Bloomberg's plan is that the fight is said to be against empty calories, while singling out the beverage category, even though empty calories is a common trait in many products consumed.  Why isn't the American ice cream, cookie and cupcake complex equally as responsible for the obesity in America as Coca-Cola seems to be?   

There is a good reason for this; however, it isn't what Bloomberg's law suggests that it is.  While the sugary soda ban takes aim at the size of the drinks people consume, the real secret formula in getting soda into every American belly is its wide availability.  The true brilliance of beverage marketers is the power of their distribution networks.  It's by design that no matter where you're reading this, you’re probably less than 200 footsteps from the nearest delicious Coke.  An expansive distribution of sugary drinks is the biggest aid in making them appear as something other than a treat or desert, which is closer to what they actually are.  Thus, it's hard to argue against their unhealthy contribution to American obesity.

Still, that doesn't make Bloomberg's soda ban a good law.  I truly wonder what effect the proposed soda legislation will have.  Will this piece of legislation actually reduce empty calorie intake or will it simply redistribute where they come from while inconveniencing convenience store owners and their customers?  I think it's a fair question to ask.

Interestingly, beer is a beverage that is also devoid of any nutritional value, yet brewers don't face the same type scrutiny in the obesity debate.  While it’s highly regulated, albeit for a different reason, why is they approach toward regulating each drink so different?  As opposed to tackling the size of the drink, regulating who can serve what and where, as is done with alcoholic beverages, actually gets to the heart of why these beverages pervade our society.  I believe doing so would more effectively reposition how people view sugary soft drinks and consequently curb their impact on society.

As for tobacco, I applaud Bloomberg for finding yet another creative way to regulate the sale of an already extremely regulated product.  But I wonder if the sale of tobacco in America isn't ripe for an overhaul.  Can a more equitable system be devised?   

What if cigarettes where only sold direct to the consumer, through authorized dealers online? Although interstate commerce laws would have to be adjusted, the advantages are sales could require a social security number that is automatically cross referenced with the credit card used to make the purchase.  This would add a major buffer between cigarettes and minors.  Additionally, the delayed gratification of receiving cigarettes via mail would dampen most impulsive desires to purchase cigarettes. Finally, purchases would easily be tracked to a known identity.  That information as to who is buying could be shared with health insurance providers and groups who offer quitting services.  In exchange for this regulated system, governments could reduce the sky-high sales taxes already placed on tobacco. 

As always, thanks for reading.  I'd love to hear your solutions, no matter how crazy, to the problems that Mayor Bloomberg is trying to solve.  Please share in the comments section of this blog.

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