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NYC soda ban block 'clearly in error,' Bloomberg says

Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a news conference

Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a news conference in New York City after a New York state judge halted a controversial ban on large sugary drinks. (March 11, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said a judge was "clearly in error" for blocking the city's ban on jumbo-sized sugary drinks and vowed a vigorous fight to overturn the ruling and highlight the "deadly" scourge of obesity as a public health problem that inordinately affects the poor.

"If we are serious about fighting obesity, we have to be honest about what causes it and we have to have the courage to tackle it head-on," Bloomberg said during a City Hall news conference Monday after the State Supreme Court justice's ruling in Manhattan.

"It's not enough to talk and it's not enough to hope," Bloomberg said. "We have a responsibility as human beings to do something to save each other. While other people will wring their hands over the problem of sugary drinks, in New York City we're doing something about it."

Bloomberg cited health statistics suggesting that 70,000 people across the nation and 5,000 in New York City alone die from obesity every year. He equated the city Health Department's initiative on sugary drinks with other groundbreaking efforts it has pursued, such as the ban on lead paint and adding fluoride to drinking water.

His comments -- testy at times -- came hours after the justice blocked the city's proposed ban, calling it "arbitrary and capricious."

Championed by Bloomberg, the controversial edict would have barred businesses that get letter grades from the city's Health Department from selling sugary drinks in sizes greater than 16 ounces. The Health Department has argued that action is necessary to combat the city's extraordinarily high 58 percent obesity rate.

The American Beverage Association and other industry groups sued to block the rules.

Bloomberg defended the city's action and brushed off suggestions that he was expending valuable political capital in an effort to regulate individual behavior.

"People are dying every day," Bloomberg said. "This is not a joke. This is about real lives."

Bloomberg insisted that obesity has left a trail of "disease and death" in poor neighborhoods. He rejected the notion that the ban is overreaching.

"I've got to defend my children and you and everyone else and do what's right to save lives," he said in response to a question. "Obesity kills. There's just no question about it ... It would be irresponsible not to try to do everything we can to save lives.

The mayor dismissed the legal challenge to the ban as the work of groups representing soda manufacturers looking to protect profits.

"Any time you adopt a groundbreaking policy, special interests will sue," Bloomberg said. "That's America."

In his ruling Monday, State Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling zeroed in on the loopholes, noting it would have applied only to businesses -- such as restaurants -- that are under the purview of the Health Department.

"It is arbitrary and capricious because it applies to some but not all food establishments in the city, it excludes other beverages that have significantly higher concentrations of sugar sweeteners and/or calories on suspect grounds, and the loopholes inherent in the rule ... serve to gut the purpose of the rule," he wrote.

The city's corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, disagreed and predicted the decision would be reversed.

"We think he is wrong when you look at the law," Cardozo said. "We believe he interpreted the precedents completely wrong."

Before the judge's ruling short-circuited the city's plans, some Westchester County residents warned that the city's actions could trigger an uprising by fans of supersized beverages.

"It's the beginning of a revolution, if you ask me," John Porrotta of Yonkers said. "It's like Prohibition again."

The 29-year-old pizza parlor worker said New York City's restrictions also could send borough residents in search of giant drinks across the suburban frontier.

"I mean, people come up here to buy cigarettes, so why not come up here to get the sugar as well?" he said.

Another Yonkers resident, Linda Bona, 65, agreed that those seeking giant beverages would not be denied.

"I believe people will definitely cross the border to get sugar," she said. "They go where they want to to get what they want. They go the whole nine yards."

Under the plan, the city would have imposed a $200 fine per violation against any letter-graded establishment that sells sugary drinks bigger than 16 ounces. Diet drinks of fewer than 25 calories per 8 ounces, dairy products and alcoholic drinks would have been exempt from the regulation.

The Health Department grades delis, restaurants, movie theaters and stadiums, but not supermarkets, which are regulated by the state.

That means 7-Elevens and their Big Gulp sugary drinks would have been beyond the reach of New York City regulators.

Lisa Young, an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University, said that despite some opposition, New Yorkers are scaling back on their soda.

"Even if you're opposed to it, you become more aware how ridiculously large these sodas have become," she said.

Some larger brands, such as Dunkin' Donuts, already were removing bigger containers for some drinks. And the company has said it won't put sugar in its large and extra-large coffees. Although it is complying, the company does not support the ban, a spokeswoman said.

"Placing another burden on small businesses is simply not the way to go," Michelle King said in a statement.

With Elizabeth Daza, amNewYork and Reuters

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