NYC Fat Attack Ads Challenged as Unscientific

NYC Fat Attack Ads Challenged as Unscientific

Sarah McIntosh

Sarah McIntosh (mcintosh.sarah@gmail.com) is vice president at Missouri News Horizon and a lecturer... (read full bio)


The New York City Health Department has come under fire for creating a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign with the message that a can of soda each day “can make you 10 pounds fatter a year,” a conclusion with little scientific support.

For much of 2010, New York City was embroiled in a debate over taxing soda at the behest of Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was ultimately frustrated in his attempts to implement the tax. During the course of this debate, the NYC Health Department produced a media campaign, coined “Pouring on the Pounds.” Internal emails obtained by the New York Times revealed the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, supported the ads despite concerns raised by his subordinates who decried the ads as unscientific.

Disgusting the Populace

The ads attempted to grab attention by causing disgust, including print ads in 1,500 subway cars showing fat coming out of a soda bottle, and a YouTube video of “Man Drinking Fat” showing a man slurping fat from a can.

According to emails obtained by the Times under the Freedom of Information Act, Farley’s chief nutritionist, Cathy Nonas, recommended caution in a memo to her colleagues in August.

“As we get into this exacting science, the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd,” wrote Nonas. Scientists “will make mincemeat of us” for the claim, she warned.

Bad Science

Patrick Basham, founding director of the Democracy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, agrees with Nonas.

“The science on obesity and soft drinks doesn't come close to supporting the attack ads. Bloomberg's campaign is Exhibit A for how well-intentioned policymakers massage, or simply ignore, the science in order to propagate their version of The Truth regarding public health,” Basham said.

What’s more, Basham said, the attack ads will not work.

“In part, this is because they are scientifically ludicrous. But more importantly, they defy common sense. Every soft drink consumer already knows they shouldn't live off sugary drinks—and they don't,” Basham said. “Graphic warnings have a history of getting the public's attention, but they also have a history of not changing the public's behavior.”

Soda Taxes Fundamentally Regressive

Basham says research shows soda taxes do little to alter consumer behavior.

“At best, these regressive taxes divert some consumers from one product type to another product type that the elitist food police will eventually find unacceptable,” Basham said.

“These assaults intentionally target the consumers of products disproportionately purchased by members of lower socioeconomic groups,” he added. “Regressive taxation is surely not the cure for America's alleged obesity crisis.”

Sarah McIntosh, esq. (mcintosh.sarah@gmail.com) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.

Sarah McIntosh

Sarah McIntosh (mcintosh.sarah@gmail.com) is vice president at Missouri News Horizon and a lecturer... (read full bio)