Soda Ban Study Says, When Large Drinks Are Banned, Customers Buy More Smaller Ones

The soda ban on large serving sizes, also known as the sugary drink ban, could have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to buy — and to drink — more of the unhealthy beverages. That’s the startling conclusion of a new study from researchers at the University of California in San Diego, who published their findings Wednesday in open access science journal PLOS One.

There’s been a heated public debate ever since New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg proposed a highly controversial ban on selling large sizes of soda in his city in 2012. The unpopular proposal even inspired the Mississippi state legislature to pass a soda un-ban, which guarantees that residents of the notorious fattest state will not have their right to buy Big Gulps infringed by force of law.

Adding fuel to the fire was a recent Harvard School of Public Health study presented at the March meeting of the American Heart Association in New Orleans, where Dr. Gitanjali Singh claimed that 180,000 people died in 2010 worldwide as a result of drinking sugary drinks like soda and sports beverages — including an estimated 25,000 people right here in the United States.

The supposedly deadly drinks may or may not really be that dangerous. But lead author Brent Wilson and colleagues immediately recognized a loophole in the controversial bans on soda sizes. After all, what enterprising restaurant owner is going to give up the profits they’ve enjoyed in the past from selling drinks — often the single most profitable item in a fast food restaurant?

What if, instead of offering one ginormous drink, soft drink sellers simply offered a bundle of two or more smaller drinks in order to keep — or even enhance — the bottom line?

The researchers tested 100 UC-SD students with different menus that offered different kinds of drink options. The first choice was a standard unrestricted menu that offered 16, 24, or giant 32 ounce servings. A highly restricted menu offered only the 16 ounce serving size.

However, Wilson said that businesses were faced with a significant loss of revenue if customers could only buy the 16 ounce drinks. Thus, to allow them to continue to offer upsizing deals, they would likely “bundle” the drink offers into two-for-one sales or similar deals.

So the researchers also offered a “bundled” menu, where customers could choose from a bundle of two 12 ounce drinks, a 16 ounce drink, or a bundle of two 16 ounce drinks. In that way, the business could get around the ban on sizes larger than 16 ounces, and customers could still purchase a total of 24 or 32 ounces if they so desired.

Now, you and I may think it seems logical that if you want 24 ounces of soft drink, then it doesn’t matter if you have to order it in one cup or two. However, the San Diego researchers discovered that customers actually ended up buying significantly more soda when they were offered the bundles of smaller drinks.

Eh, we all know how that happens, right? It’s how the cake in the fridge gets slivered to death. Customers probably think they’re gonna drink one soda and share the other with a friend. But it kinda, sorta doesn’t work out that way when the drinks are actually in front of them.

The researchers said that there’s more work to be done to find out if the customers just bought more or if they actually did drink more as a result of the ban forcing them to buy bundles of smaller sizes.

For now, they have concluded: “Even with the restriction, New York State Senator Daniel Squadron has said that those who want to drink more will still be able to go ahead and have two. Our study shows that when larger drink sizes are offered as bundles, people are very likely to go ahead and do just that.”

Apparently, it’s fun to argue about banning or not banning sodas and other sugary soft drinks. But the bans themselves may be worthless.

[soft drink soda aisle photo by Kjetil Ree via Wikipedia Commons]