Borough President Markowitz testified this week against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed ban on large-sized sugary drinks. These are his remarks.
Although I am here in disagreement on this particular policy, I fully support and commend this administration’s commitment to improving the health of all New Yorkers.
From expanding smoke-free zones to healthier school meals, banning trans fats to increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and reducing sodium in foods to labeling calories at fast food chains, this administration’s health initiatives have proven to be enormously successful.
But despite the city’s many positive health programs, I do not support the proposed ban on sugary drinks — or what I used to know as soda — larger than 16 ounces because consumers should have the ultimate say.
The way to approach the obesity epidemic is through education, advocacy, counseling, group support, and I believe most importantly, efforts to raise self-esteem, not a punitive policy that forcibly limits consumer choices.
When it comes to what we eat or drink, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Someone who exercises regularly, eats right, and has the right DNA can drink an entire two liter bottle of soda and not gain a pound. But if someone like me did that — I would be twice the size I am now.
Let me be clear: I’m overweight not because I drink Big Gulp sodas, but frankly because I eat too much pasta, pastrami sandwiches, pizza, bagels with cream cheese and lox, red velvet cake and cheesecake, don’t exercise as much as I should, and my genes are working against me. I was an overweight kid and I’m an overweight adult.
There’s an absolute truth that I want to share with you. Nobody wants to be obese, but for whatever reason, whether it’s genetics — which plays a big part in this — overeating, or a lack of exercise, for many of us, what we eat really sticks to us.
Don’t get me wrong. For those with this problem, I know large sodas, fast food, fatty foods, too much sodium, and super-sized portions, as well as “white” products — breads, pasta, rice, and baked goods — are a direct cause of the obesity epidemic. But the key is limiting them from our diets, not banning them.
So to really tackle the obesity epidemic head on, I urge the Department of Health to launch a citywide campaign to promote group exercise in the neighborhoods with particularly high rates of obesity.
And let’s get the private sector involved. If the city is really serious about knocking pounds off the scale, we should create an “exercise stamp” program like “food stamps” that subsidizes the cost of gym membership, spin studios, or group exercise classes for the city’s youth and low-income families. After all, you’re more likely to get in shape and stay that way when you’re working out with others who are facing the same challenges.
With kids glued to their computer screens, iPhones, iPads, or other electronic devices all day, only their fingers are getting a workout and not their bodies. So getting kids to be active and in shape is more important than ever. Unfortunately, right now roughly 20 percent of high school students in New York City have no physical education classes in an average week and far too many don’t even have space to exercise.
That is unacceptable. When I was a kid, we had gym class every day. So let’s not combat obesity by banning large sodas; let’s do it with a policy that requires students to exercise every day in middle school and high school.
And in neighborhoods struggling with obesity, we should be setting up physical fitness programs and outdoor group exercise clinics led by physical trainers. In addition, we should be ensuring that all New Yorkers have access to fresh fruits and vegetables by providing incentives to developers to rent to full-service supermarkets rather than another bank or drug chain, and open up our schools so that they can educate not only children, but parents on how to cook healthier and smarter meals with an emphasis on smaller portions.
As one of the most diverse places in the world, we should be sharing the best practices from our many ethnic groups to educate residents on how to prepare tasty, exciting, and healthy dishes. For instance, Asian American cuisine is delicious and also emphasizes more vegetables, smaller portions of meat, and less starch.
And with the same gusto that the city has poured into its anti-smoking ads, let’s send a clear message that obesity leads to heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure, other deadly health risks — and lowers the quality of life — but with the caveat that the goal is not to idolize being razor-thin. It’s about being fit and increasing self-esteem, because beauty comes in every size and shape. How sweet it is!
So when it comes to a personal decision like what I put on my dinner table, the government can educate, inform, advocate, and inspire, but should not be the final decision maker when it comes down to what is best for me. Ultimately, it should be the consumer that decides.
It’s as simple as this: the better you look, the better you feel. And the better you feel, the better you want to look and the more you’ll be conscious of what you eat and drink. I said it before and I’ll say it again: nobody willingly wants to be obese.