Is This The Answer?

After posting about the salt tax in Hungary, it was with interest I read the NYTimes article today regarding the effect of the new drink rules on coffee purchases (Yee and Grinbaum; City’s New Drink Rules Add Wrinkle to Coffee Orders; 3/6/2013). While it’s been well-publicized that sugary sodas greater than 16 ounces are banned, the law is much more complicated regarding coffee sales.

It is important to note that sales of coffee 16 ounces or less (with or without sugar) are unaffected by the new regulations. Moreover, as authors note, “… cups of coffee larger than 16 ounces can still be served as long as the barista adds no more than three to five packets of sugar. ” However, once the consumer actually purchases the drink, he or she can add as much additional sugar as desired– as long as the barista doesn’t do it. And, these rules don’t apply to drinks that are more than 50% milk, because milk, even when combined with copious amounts of sugar, is considered a valuable source of nutrition.

Sound confusing? It is. Interpretation of the law is further complicated by the fact that coffee shops do not always know how much milk is in a specific coffee drink, which would then determine whether the drink is actually exempt from the law. Iced drinks are particularly difficult to reconcile given the inconsistent milk-ice-coffee balance. And flavored syrups add yet another source of uncertainty because serving the syrup on the side effectively circumvents the law. Widespread confusion is expected as consumers and coffee shops transition into the new regulations. In fact, Dunkin’ Donuts has created a preemptive consumer education flier that attempts to clarify the uncertainty surrounding these coffee drinks.

Dunkin coffee

All of this has me wondering, though, how effective these regulations will be at instilling sustainable and meaningful behavior change. There is no disputing the role of sugary beverages in overall calorie (over)consumption and the obesity epidemic. But what role does legislation play in ameliorating a multi-faceted public health problem that is rooted in much larger issues such as culture, education, socioeconomic status, and personal responsibility? I don’t have the answers, but I know I’ll need a cup of coffee to ponder them.


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