Case 15: Access to Sugary Drinks: A Tale of Public Policy
Relevant Professions: Public Health, Medicine, Nursing,
Issues: Diabetes and metabolic syndrome, School policy.
Why this is important: Diabetes is a major health problem in the US. Proposed
ways to reduce diabetes rates are very important, but often raise the issue of the
conflict between freedom of choice versus the greatest good for the greatest
The case: An Arlen Independent School District (AISD) Board Meeting is
scheduled to vote on a controversial issue: whether to ban all sugary drinks from
high school grounds. Three experts are called into provide testimony.
By now, the connection between high consumption of sugary drinks and weight
gain was viewed as conclusive by most Members. The weight of evidence also
pointed to heightened risk of obesity and Type II diabetes among high, daily
consumers. Soda machines had already been removed from all of the primary
grades by letting their contracts lapse with distributors. High Schools were different since more was at stake financially and energy and sport drinks replaced soda as the drink of choice among students. Moreover, high school students were approaching adulthood and legally permitted to drop out at 15. And yet, the political trend in Colorado was toward some kind of action; it was named the thinnest state in the Union in 2001 and saw its reputation threatened as the newest cohort of teens
weighed in. Opponents to any Board action to restrict access had maneuvered to
have the strongest form among the proponents’ measures—a ban—put on the
agenda for an up or down vote. Consideration of any substitutes would be postponed
until after the pending School Board election.
The first expert was Daniel Lit, an exercise physiologist with the state’s
Department of Parks and Recreation. He addressed what many viewed as an
unintended consequence. If sugary drinks were banned on school grounds without
exception, then sports programs would have a very difficult time addressing
dehydration in Arlen’s altitude, especially during spring and fall seasons when high
temperatures made this problem a deadly serious one. He believed that the solution
for obesity prevention was to mandate participation in sports for all students. He
also reminded Members that income from drink sales and vending machine franchises
were a key revenue source for keeping sports and physical education programs
alive in rural areas.
Donna Deckle an epidemiologist from the University Medical Center spoke
next. She cited recent data on the average ingestion rates: sugary drinks were the
number one source of calories in this age cohort’s diet, responsible for more than
half of all the added sugar they consumed. She argued in favor of the ban to protect
these children from the dangers that sugary drinks pose to their future health. She
had no confidence in the effectiveness of measures short of eliminating access for
anyone under 18, as had been done with alcohol and tobacco. She also cited some
experimental evidence suggesting that high sugar consumption was addictive.
Burt Redone, health economist with the Federal Reserve, advanced an argument
for a substitute motion. He believed that banning was too expensive to implement
and enforce. The simplest alternative was to raise the price of drinks to a level that
would discourage consumption. His calculations pointed to a doubling of the price
as the right value. He thought that the higher price would be an effective signal to
young consumers that their sugar intake needed to be rationed. He pointed out that
this had worked quite well with tobacco sales and would translate easily to the
vending machines without jeopardizing existing contracts with drink distributors.
In an unusual move, the Mayor of Arlen, Sophia Villarreal, requested time as an
expert. She pointed out that the opinion polls were against this ban and counseled
the elected Board Members to heed the views of their constituents. She drew some
applause when she stated that the way to get children to make responsible choices
was to give them guidance and then opportunities to make the right choices. She
was not averse to posting information or warnings if the science was there, but
thought that more aggressive intervention was both misguided and inconsistent with
community norms and values.
1. What ethical arguments is each of the experts making?
2. What are the pros and cons of each of these arguments?
3. How should this case best be resolved?
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