Soda sellers are set to get a three-month grace period from fines for violating New York City's upcoming crackdown on supersized sugary drinks, but a size limit still is set to take effect as planned in March, officials said Monday.
The reprieve on fines comes as soda makers, restaurateurs and other businesses are suing to try to block the unprecedented rule from going into effect at all. The city sees it as a groundbreaking step to fight obesity; the opponents call it unfair and overreaching.
The city Board of Health agreed in September to bar restaurants and many other eateries from selling high-sugar drinks in cups or containers bigger than 16 ounces, starting March 12. The requirement will start as scheduled, but the health officials "will not seek fines for noncompliance for the first three months," city lawyer Mark Muschenheim said in a statement.
Instead, businesses that break the rule would get notices from March to June. Then they could face $200 fines.
This approach echoes how the city has handled other public health rules, including making chain restaurants post calorie counts on their menus and barring artificial trans fats in french fries and other restaurant food.
Asked about the plan to hold off fines, the American Beverage Association pointed to the ongoing lawsuit. It argues that the health board didn't have the power to impose the rule, among other claims. A hearing is set for next week.
The three-month delay in imposing fines was broached at a court conference last week. Officials confirmed it Monday.
The restriction is the first of its kind in the nation, and it drew support from doctors and diet companies. Its leading advocate, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, called it a reasonable restriction that could stop people from consuming calories they might not even consider. He noted that the costs of obesity are rising, in both suffering and dollars.
But some cola drinkers, sellers and manufacturers said a city known for ambitious — some say nannyish — public health efforts went too far in setting portion sizes for sodas.
The restrictions don't include every high-calorie drink, since there are exceptions for beverages made mostly of milk or unsweetened fruit juice. The rule also doesn't apply everywhere, since supermarkets and most convenience stores aren't subject to city health regulations.
The lawsuit says the restriction unfairly harms small businesses, and the unelected health board went beyond its authority in dictating the size of soft drinks. The city says the panel of physicians and other health experts acted within its purview.