K.C. Quilter, sipping his super-sized soda at a downtown Salt Lake City gas station, thinks the government has no business messing with his soft drink habit.
"If we want to get fat and die, let us," the 20-year-old autobody worker said, sitting in the back of a truck.
Utah soda drinkers proudly defended their right to drink as much as they want Thursday after hearing of New York City's plan to ban large sodas and other sugary drinks. Such a restriction would never happen in Utah, health advocates predict.
"We can't even get the Legislature to support removing vending machines in schools," said Gina Cornia, the executive director of Utahns Against Hunger. "[People] compare the ability to have the access to that to saluting the flag."
New York CityMayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal would affect the city's restaurants, delis and movie theaters in an attempt to combat obesity. The move is seen by critics as an expansion of his administration's efforts to encourage healthy behavior by limiting residents' choices.
In Utah, where many elected officials shun coffee as members of the LDS Church, soda flows freely at the Legislature. Lawmakers can sip free soft drinks in large cups in rooms throughout the state Capitol building during their annual session.
"You might as well put an IV in your vein," said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, who has pushed for healthier drink choices in schools and prefers to drink milk and water at the capitol.
Health experts in Utah agree that soda's massive sugar content and empty calories likely contribute to the obesity epidemic. Soda should be drunk in moderation, they say.
"It's like your birthday cake," said Beverly Neville, a dietician at the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. "But people eat and drink like it's their birthday every day of the year."
A 2008 state health report found that 23.6 percent of teenagers in Utah drink at least seven sodas each week. The sugar content of one 12-oz soft drink per day exceeds the daily recommendation by the U.S. Health and Human Services for almost all age groups.
And that habit of one soda per day can lead to more than 15 extra pounds by the end of the year.
More than 30 percent of Utah's fattest adults report drinking at least one soft drink per day, according to 2009 and 2010 data.
New York City's proposal would take 20-ounce soda bottles off the shelves of the city's delis and eliminate super-sized sugary soft drinks from fast-food menus. The administration would impose a 16-ounce limit on sugary drinks sold at restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues and street carts.
It would apply to bottled drinks as well as fountain sodas. The ban would not apply to diet soda or any other calorie-free drink. Any drink that is at least half milk or a milk substitute would be exempted.Drinks sold in grocery stores would not be affected.
The proposal requires the approval of the city's Board of Health considered likely because its members are all appointed by Bloomberg.
Under the three-term mayor, the city has campaigned aggressively against obesity, outlawing trans-fats in restaurant food and forcing chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.
Some of those changes, though initially perceived as radical, have made their impact on Utah. The trans-fat decision has led national food chains to change their menu choices, giving people here healthier options.
But Utah is a soda-loving culture, acknowledged Neville with the health department. Possibly even more so than New York.
"Basically it should be up to the person," said Brian Coom, heading into a downtown Salt Lake City McDonald's. "It is their personal choice whether they want to consume that many calories and have that size of a drink."
Danny Samuelsen, who was also going into the restaurant, said the government should get its priorities straight.
"There are a lot more important things for the government to be working on than [corn] syrup," he said.
Just because people drink soft drinks doesn't mean they'll end up with a weight problem, said Jamie Petersen, 34, a stay-at-home mom whose husband was getting gas at a Salt Lake City Maverik.
"I grew up drinking soda and I'm not obese," she said.
As for limiting soda sizes to make people skinnier, Quilter is skeptical.
"The only way it would prevent obesity is that it might cost too much for people to get all those refills," he said.
The Associated Press and Tribune reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.
Mayor targets sugary drinks over 16 oz.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks in restaurants, delis and movie theaters in the hopes of combating obesity. Drinks would be limited to 16 ounces. The ban would apply only to drinks that contain more than 25 calories per 8 ounces. Here are calorie and sugar counts in 8 ounces of a sampling of popular drinks:
Coca-Cola • 100 calories, 27 grams of sugar
Pepsi • 100 calories, 28 grams of sugar
Nestea Iced Tea with Lemon • 80 calories, 22 grams of sugar
Rockstar Energy Drink • 140 calories, 31 grams of sugar
Sprite • 96 calories, 26 grams of sugar