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Study: NYC soda ban would affect overweight people more than poor

If New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to limit soda sizes wins its latest court challenge, it would affect more overweight people than those living in poverty, Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health researchers say.

The researchers determined that 7.5 percent of all Americans have habits that would be affected by this kind of regulation, which would limit the sale of sugary beverages to 16 ounces at establishments under the New York City Board of Health's jurisdiction. More overweight people would be affected, they said, and poor people would not be disproportionally affected.

Opponents of the ban had previously said that poor people, who were more likely to buy cheaper sugary drinks, would be most affected by the new rules.

"Our findings are clear: a law like this would address one of the fundamental causes of obesity--the growing portion size of sweetened drinks," lead author Dr. Y. Claire Wang, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, said in a press release.

Data from a 2010 study on global disease suggested that 180,000 deaths worldwide were linked to sugary drink consumption. In total, 133,000 deaths from diabetes, 44,000 from heart disease and 6,000 deaths from cancer across the globe were tied to sugary drink intake. In the U.S., 25,000 deaths were linked to drinking sugary drinks. The research was presented on March 19 at the American Heart Association's 2013 meeting in New Orleans.

Bloomberg's plan to curb the sale of sodas and other sugar-filled drinks was blocked by the New York State Supreme Court in March. Judge Milton Tingling said the law had too many loopholes, especially because it allowed some drinks that had higher amounts of sugar sweeteners or calories. A state appeals court panel began hearing arguments to overturn Tingling's ruling on Tuesday.

Researchers looked at 19,147 dietary records from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, which took place between 2007 and 2010. They found out that 65 percent of sugar-filled drinks were consumed in fast food restaurants, followed by 28 percent in restaurants with wait staff; 4 percent in a sports stadium, movie theater, or other entertainment venue; 2 percent from a street vendor; and 1 percent from a bar. The researchers pointed out that New York City has a higher percentage of street vendors and full-service restaurants, so the numbers may be different.

About 60.5 percent of Americans drank a sugary beverage daily, but only 7.5 percent bought them from a food establishment in sizes that would not be allowed under the proposed regulation.

If the ban were in place, overweight people would be affected more than the general population. About 8.6 percent of those who were overweight buy drinks larger than 16 ounces daily. In addition, 13.6 percent of overweight teenagers, and 12.6 percent of overweight young adults aged 20 to 44 break the rule every day.

The poor were not as affected. Americans with incomes less than 130 percent of the poverty line -- which would make them eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps -- bought the same amount of large sugary beverages compared to those with higher incomes.

The researchers also modeled what it would be like if the rules were set in place. They assumed that 80 percent of large soda drinkers would downsize, but 20 percent would buy two 16-ounce sodas. This still would lead to a 63-calorie reduction for adults and a 58-calorie reduction for children and teenagers daily. Previous research by Wang revealed that if adults would cut 64 calories a day from their diet, America would reach the Healthy People 2020 goal for reducing obesity to 30.5 percent of the adult population by the proposed date. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.7 percent of adults are obese.

However, a study published in April in PLoS One revealed that subjects limited to the 16-ounce size were keener to buy more small cups of soda. Before the ban, they may have bought a larger size cup, but ultimately would have consumed less soda.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley told Reuters in a statement that he believes the study shows that the right people will be affected by the ban.

"This new study shows that our portion cap rule will likely lead to a decrease in calories consumed, especially among the people who need the help the most, obese and overweight youth," he commented. "The rule is a reasonable and effective response to the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes that are killing thousands of New Yorkers a year."

Gus K. West, president of the Washington-based Hispanic Institute, told the Los Angeles Times that even if the rule did affect the poor more, it would be a good thing if it could lower the rates of obesity and diabetes.

"We believe overall, the community as a whole is going to benefit more than be negatively affected. We don't believe they've demonstrated the store owners are going to really suffer any hardship, and there's no evidence to prove that low-income consumers are going to turn around and buy another portion. We don't buy that argument," he said.

The study was published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on June 12.