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Harlem Small Businesses Rail Against Bloomberg's Sugary Drink Ban

By Jeff Mays | July 12, 2012 9:33am
Lal Barak, owner of Crown Fried Chicken at Lexington Avenue and East 116th Street, tells East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's soda ban would hurt his business.
Lal Barak, owner of Crown Fried Chicken at Lexington Avenue and East 116th Street, tells East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's soda ban would hurt his business.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Lal Barak, owner of Crown Fried Chicken at Lexington Avenue and East 116th Street, says he wouldn't have such a problem with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed big soda ban if his business wasn't sandwiched between two bodegas.

Under the plan, the corner stores would still be able to sell 2-liter sweetened beverages because they are classified as grocery establishments, while individual stores like Barak's would be barred from doing so.

"If a customer comes here and asks for a bottle of soda and I can't sell it here, they are just going to go next door," said Barak. "This is going to hurt my business."

Barak raised his concerns with East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito as part of a brief walking tour sponsored by the American Beverage Association, a lobbying group for makers and distributors of non-alcoholic beverages, which, along with the councilwoman, opposes the ban.

The group has launched a media blitz against the plan.

"Our freedom of choice is being restricted," said Vanessa Pino Lockel, New York City director of the American Beverage Association.

Mark-Viverito said Bloomberg's ban was "sound-bite public policy" and would be too onerous to enforce while drawing attention away from issues that could more forcefully impact the health of her constituents in East Harlem and the South Bronx who suffer from high rates of obesity and related diseases such as diabetes.

According to a city study, six of every 10 adults in East and Central Harlem are overweight or obese. East Harlem is also classified as a food desert. Only 3 percent of bodegas carry fresh, leafy green vegetables compared to 30 percent on the Upper East Side.

"This is just a distraction. It doesn't get at the root of the issue," said Mark-Viverito, who added she doesn't support the consumption of large quantities of soda.
Starting young is the best way to change people's attitudes toward health, Mark-Viverito said.
Enforcing the mandatory requirement for physical education in public schools and increasing access to fresh, healthy foods are good places to start. Mark-Viverito said her strong support of bike lanes in East Harlem shows a commitment to improving residents' health.
"How do we make open space more available? That's difficult and more challenging than this sound-bite policy," said Mark-Viverito, who purchased a diet Coke from Sam's Pizza.

Under the amendment to the city's health code, establishments such as restaurants, fast-food joints, delis, movie theaters, sports stadiums and food carts could not sell sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces. The ban would cover soda, fountain drinks and teas at any location that receives a letter grade from the city's Department of Health.

Excluded are grocery establishments and diet drinks and teas with fewer than 25 calories per 8 ounces. Drinks that contain at least 70-percent fruit or vegetable juice, alcoholic beverages and  dairy-based drinks such as milkshakes were also exempted.

Bloomberg has said the measure is a proactive step in addressing the country's growing obesity problem.

"In New York City nearly 60 percent of adults and nearly 40 percent of children are overweight or obese and there are real-world consequences," Bloomberg, who has also pushed limits on smoking in public and the amount of trans fats in foods, said in a statement.

"Obesity is the only major public health issue we have that is getting worse and New York City has the courage to stand up and do something about it."

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 51 percent of New York City voters were opposed to the plan. Manhattan residents showed the highest level of support with 55 percent backing the ban.

The Board of Health voted to move forward with the plan last month. A public hearing will be held on July 24.

Javier Lopez, director of the NYC Strategic Alliance for Health, praised Bloomberg as being progressive on issues of public health but felt this most recent effort was misguided.

"This should not be the most prominent issue regarding public health in New York City right now," Lopez said.

"People understand that soda and fast food is not good but we haven't gotten the individual freedom aspect to connect to public health. We need to focus on food access and creating an equitable environment across the board."

Henry Calderon, chairman of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce, said the ban is uneven and would hurt local stores such as Sam's Famous Pizza on the corner of 116th Street and Lexington Avenue that offer food and drink specials to attract customers.

"If you want to talk about health then no one should be allowed to sell drinks over 16 ounces," said Calderon. "What we should be spending our money on is education and health literacy so people understand what it means to drink a super-sized soda."

Dimitrios Alexiou, manager of Sam's Pizza, said he's providing goods the public wants. Often when he offers the 12-ounce fountain soda with a pizza special, customers say it's too small.

"I don't even drink soda but other people are never going to stop. My wife buys the 2 liters of soda," he said. "They are going to buy it from somewhere."