Originally published in Forbes Magazine on March 18, 2013.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban big sugary drinks fell flat last week when a judge blocked it, and Bloomberg has vowed to appeal. That’s the last thing he should be doing.
Critics said the proposed ban had too many loopholes, for example covering sodas but not milkshakes. They decried yet another case of overwrought nannyism. The judge called the ban “arbitrary and capricious.” Businesses called it unfair and unworkable. All true—but all beside the point.
The point, one Bloomberg should respect as a business leader, is that solving vexing societal problems in which business plays a role is a slower and bloodier process when business’ needs are ignored, whether the problem be obesity, smoking, guns, automobile safety, or whatever. Time and again, progress has come faster when an industry saw that what was in the public’s best interest was in its own best interest, too. The U.S. auto industry for years fought off activists like Ralph Nader who wanted safer cars. Only when Detroit figured out that paying attention to safety conferred competitive advantages already enjoyed by Volvo, Mercedes, and other European automakers did it willingly embrace safety beyond what the government mandated.
Bloomberg’s accomplishments in business have given him powerful currency, both in money and influence. As mayor he has used that currency to make changes that have benefited a majority of New Yorkers, such as banning smoking in public places, reducing crime, and helping residents find affordable health care. He also has encouraged the private sector to invest in affordable housing. This initiative will help 165,000 more New York City families find affordable housing by some time this year.
His social activism hasn’t stopped with food and housing. He has demonstrated leadership on the national stage as co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a 900-member group that aims not to ban guns but to keep criminals from illegally obtaining them. And he has used his personal fortune to bankroll national and international causes that he is passionate about, fighting crime, improving education, and helping local governments run better.
But in his anti-obesity campaign’s focus on Big Gulps, Bloomberg’s currency is being spent in the wrong place. In his evolution from business titan to social activist, he has forgotten what made him so successful as a businessman. He is approaching the obesity crisis with an activist’s fire-throwing fervor, attempting to solve it by making a scene, micromanaging business, and busting chops. Instead, he should bring his well-honed, considerable business skills to his crusade, focusing on finding ways to help both sides get what they want.
Here’s what he should do.
- Align with food and beverage companies’ self-interest. Fortunately he has plenty of talking points that can win industry support. New studies from my organization, the Hudson Institute, demonstrate that food companies and restaurant chains that offer lower-calorie and better-for-you foods are delivering superior sales performance. That is a far more compelling incentive to change than the threat that you’ll be breaking the law if you serve a 17-ounces cola. Bloomberg should also work his considerable connections on Wall Street, highlighting to security analysts the positive effect that healthier foods and beverages can have on key financial measures. Increased Wall Street scrutiny will do more than the moral argument to put pressure on food companies to reduce calories.
- Focus on the core problem, but don’t tell business how to solve it. The best business leaders achieve buy-in for an initiative and then get out of their employees’ way and let them execute. When the U.S. mandated new fuel consumption standards for automobiles, the government didn’t tell automakers what technologies to use or what cars to build; as a result, the new standards were embraced by most auto manufacturers and their unions, as a way to get people to buy more cars. In the case of obesity the core problem is not large sodas but excess consumption of calories from multiple sources. Our research demonstrates that restaurant chains that reduce beverage calories have a healthier business, not just a healthier customer base. Bloomberg can tell New York restaurants and other food outlets that they’re leaving money on the table by sticking to their bigger-is-better approach. But he should let them figure out how to change, whether by reducing drink sizes, promoting bottled water more vigorously, or pricing diet sodas more attractively. If he tries to jigger product lineups and mess with profit models, he’ll only guarantee resistance.
- Track progress. Both the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo have reduced their “calorie footprints” (the average calories sold per capita) in the U.S., by 24% and 28% respectively during the last decade. Bloomberg should urge New York restaurants to adopt similarly measured goals, just as the automotive industry adopted standard measures for fuel efficiency. A recognition system that tracks food company calorie footprints, similar to the J.D. Power and Associates surveys of automobile model quality, could assess whether food companies, restaurants, and other food outlets make real progress in reducing the calories they sell to consumers. Only when this system is in place will the mayor have a means to determine who is moving in the right direction.
Bloomberg deserves credit for taking on this deadly and costly public health crisis. I hope that even when he is no longer mayor he will continue the fight on the national stage, as passionately as Bill and Melinda Gates have adopted education and the Pew family has advanced arts and culture. But he needs more than just passion and fervor. He needs to be persuasive, practical and business-savvy, drawing on the very qualities that built his fortune and reputation.