Food Politics

Mark Bittman Wants to Establish a National Drinking Age for Soda

He says there's effectively no difference between junk food and cigarettes.
He says there’s effectively no difference between junk food and cigarettes. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Mark Bittman, whose feelings about sugary beverages were pretty unequivocal as a Times columnist, says it’s time to talk about imposing an actual drinking age for sodas, just like alcohol and cigarettes. He pitched the idea during a wide-ranging Lucky Peach interview on the current state of food, telling the magazine that it may sound draconian, but it’s about the only way he sees of changing kids’ habits:

I suggest we start discussing carding kids when they go to the counter to buy a Coke. In other words, you have to be sixteen to buy a Coke, because we don’t think that you’re able to make a decision about how much soda you can drink until you’re sixteen.

He adds, “Really it should be 20, but I’m compromising because it’s such a far-fetched idea.” Far-fetched, but in many ways, not that unfathomable anymore either: Scientists have suggested a minimum age to buy sugary drinks before, Berkeley now has a citywide soda tax, Mexico briefly flirted with taxing sodas nationwide, and some California legislative body is always trying to slap soda with warning labels.

Bittman goes a step further and also throws out the idea of restricting ads that target kids, but grants this introduces “a First Amendment issue and that’s a struggle.” He seems to also realize the impracticality of a soda drinking age (right now at least), but his logic behind it is characteristically well-thought-out.

Here’s fuller context, which comes during a discussion of kids’ exposure to junk food:

We know that fully formed grown-ups don’t always make rational decisions. But kids, we don’t even expect to make rational decisions. That’s why we don’t let them drink alcohol; that’s why we don’t let them, in theory, take drugs. We don’t stop kids from driving until they’re sixteen because they’re too short; they don’t drive because they’re too dumb. We don’t let them vote; we don’t let them join the army. We don’t let them do lots of things, and some of this is because they’re physically immature, but most of it is because we just don’t think that they’re capable of making reasoned decisions until they’re of a certain age.

We all know that we form many of our habits when we’re young, and we also know from our own experience that it’s hard to change habits. If you’re going to allow marketers to teach children that sugary foods are a way to be happy, you’re allowing those habits to be formed. The result: unhealthy grown-ups who have habits that they want to break but have a lot of trouble breaking.

It’s really the equivalent of saying smoking cigarettes makes you really cool. When you’re fourteen and you want to be cool, you should start smoking cigarettes. We don’t allow that anymore. We stopped that, and that was a very wise thing for us to do. We need to do the same thing with junk food.

[Lucky Peach]

Mark Bittman Wants a Drinking Age for Soda