NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been catching a lot of grief the last few days for his proposal to prohibit movie theaters, fast-food restaurants, refreshment stands, etc., from selling sugared beverages (i.e., soda) in containers larger than 16 oz.
Legitimate criticisms notwithstanding (and there are some), I think he has a point; the underlying issue isn't the beverages themselves, but a marketing approach that encourages over-consumption. This fits in nicely with a theory I've been working on for a few years about why the U.S. seems to be in this weird obesity epidemic.
One reason (not the only one, to be sure) is the unfortunate confluence of two behavioral imperatives that almost all of us have been programmed with since infancy.
The first is "Wasting food is a sin." My Dad used to tell me that in the Army mess hall, the sign said, "Take all you eat, but eat all you take." How many of us have grown up with some version of "Finish your plate, children are starving in Europe/China/Africa/Mexico/India/Pakistan" — every generation, every immigrant group, had a different region. Folk music parodist Allan Sherman recounted that when he was young, he really thought that if he finished his plate, it would keep those children from starving in Europe — and that's why he was fat. I still have trouble throwing food away.
The other is, "It's stupid to pass up a bargain." This is the "supersize trap." Who wouldn't want to get twice as much soda/fries/popcorn/onion rings for only an additional 29¢? Twice as much!! C'mon, what's wrong with you?
And you can't blame the poor kid behind the counter, the only reason she's saying, "You can have 32 oz. for only 25¢ more" is because the manager told her to, and the only reason the manager told her to is because that's how he was trained, in a management program that selects against independent thinkers and focuses only on short-term profitability. Hell, you can't even blame the owners, they're just being capitalists, and it's like the parable of the frog and the scorpion; it's just their nature. They want to sell you as much as possible, and the more they sell you in each transaction, the more profit they make.
A little while ago, I was in a Subway out towards Lodi. As you may be aware, they have this price promotion for "five dollar foot-longs", i.e., 12" sandwiches for $5. But, trying desperately at the time to get my weight under control, I didn't want a whole 12" sandwich, I only wanted the smaller, 6" version.
The 6" sandwich was $4.49. That is to say, half as much sandwich cost 90% of the full-size sandwich. Now, I understand pricing, and I wasn't expecting half a sandwich to cost $2.50, but y'know, maybe $3.29? $3.49? $3.69?
I paid the $4.49 (plus tax, of course) for the 6" size, and felt like a moron. I felt like I had cheated myself. I felt like someone had just sold me the Brooklyn Bridge. Or an actual subway.
Now, some might say that I could have eaten half the 12" sandwich and taken the other half home. And I could have. That doesn't work for me in that particular situation, but when I get a take-out sandwich at or a or like that, I'll often eat half and put the other half in the refrigerator for later.
But that's not the point. I didn't want a 12" sandwich. And I felt like I was paying for one anyway.
So on the one hand, the thrift imperative pushes us to buy more food than we really want, and then the don't-waste-food imperative kicks in and we're compelled to finish it. This also contributes to "portion-size inflation," another factor in America's overeating.
I see Mayor Bloomberg's proposal as an attempt to break that cycle. And I applaud him for it.