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When it comes to brand marketing, perhaps no city in the country has done a better job of promoting itself than Las Vegas. The iconic tagline, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" has become part of our American lexicon and has been used, modified and mimicked by millions of Americans. It aptly conjures up the notion of the art of the possible, a town with no limits, that anything could (and probably will) happen. In this town, you are free to come as you are and do what you want.
By contrast, another major American city is creating a new brand awareness for itself, but in a way that should give all of us -- business owners, customers and citizens -- a great deal of heartburn. Under an unstated but potentially equally defining tagline, New York City is essentially saying to the rest of us that "What happens here hopefully will happen in your town sooner or later." New York City, the international beacon of laissez-faire economics and the crossroads of the global marketplace has apparently decided that enough is enough and all this empty rhetoric of the last 200 or so years regarding freedom and individual choice is trite and hackneyed.
This week, in his latest fit of socialist Euro-envy, Prime Minister Michel Bloomberg (dba Mayor Michael Bloomberg) has decided that we are all too fat. So, acting as judge and jury, Bloomberg determined both that the root cause of the problem is sweetened beverages and that we, as consumers, are too stupid or too weak to be empowered with the freedom to make our own consumer choices. The mayor, apparently without guile or any sense of irony, stood in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and announced his intentions to enact new regulations limiting the portion sizes of certain classes of beverages purchased at certain classes of retail establishments, most notably quick- and full-service restaurants.
Notwithstanding the impending legal chaos about what beverages are covered and which type of retailer is being scapegoated, this development is particularly disturbing because it not only ups the ante on New York's ongoing war against consumers, it potentially provides a roadmap for other jurisdictions to pursue similar policy initiatives. New York has become the leading laboratory for the food police and other activists in the last decade and has been out front on menu-board labeling in restaurants, tobacco restrictions, anti-retailer growth restrictions and of course, the well-publicized war on sodium.
In fact, Bloomberg received the ultimate acknowledgement for his activism and his shameless catering to the foodie nannies when his director of Public Health, Thomas Frieden, was selected by President Obama to run the National Center on Disease Control and Prevention -- the holy grail for aspiring food activists. Now, Dr. Frieden is in a position to take his New York act on the road and restrict consumer choices coast to coast. Lucky us.
It is particularly ironic that a man who has spent his lifetime advocating fewer restrictions on the media, more consumer choice and lamenting the role of government in his business, feels that all those things are necessary when it comes to your business. Hmm, I guess he thinks consumers should be free to feed their minds any way they want, but their stomachs should get no such consideration. Evidently, hypocrisy is still on the menu inside the Mayor's office.
While these new soda restrictions do not seem to immediately impact convenience stores and groceries, this development should still be taken very seriously by all of us. If government can successfully reach this far into the consumer/retailer relationship, it's only a matter of time before this and similar proposals come creeping in the door of all retailers. From an advocacy standpoint, health department regulations are nearly impossible to defeat, so barring a large and sustained public backlash, these regulations are likely to go forward.
This issue is much broader than just sodas in New York City. This isn't about providing consumers with more information and isn't about encouraging healthier choices. This is about the role of government and how heavy-handed it is allowed to be in its efforts to pursue their chosen policy objectives. This is a test case in the fundamental parameters of the reach of government. The response from the business community, consumers and citizens should be equally significant.
If the proposal is allowed to go forward, this would be a historic step back for the cause of individual freedom and a sea change in the fundamental relationships between government, commerce and consumers. As a result, the backlash against this issue has to be long and sustained regardless of when and if it's enacted, and the outrage must be deafening. Even if enacted, the fight for repeal -- political, public or legal -- has to be immediate and unending. Other jurisdictions must be deterred from going down this road and the business community has the major role in ensuring that happens.
Who would have ever thought that New York City would be the tip of the spear of the Nanny State? Who would have thought the bulls on Wall Street would be upstaged by the vegans over at Columbia. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mr. Frank Sinatra, "if they can make it happen here, they can make it happen anywhere." Whatever the final outcome, rest assured that this is no longer the same city that Ol' Blue Eyes used to sing about.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service-sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.