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Popular bubble tea jeopardized by ban

City Councilman Peter Koo (c.) discusses the mayor's proposed soda ban with a worker in a crowded downtown restaurant. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

The mayor’s proposed ban on large sugary drinks has implications for a popular Asian beverage served on the streets of downtown Flushing, a group opposed to the proposal said.

Certain types of bubble tea, a Taiwanese invention and a libation ubiquitous in predominantly Asian communities, would be banned in containers larger than 16 ounces, according to New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.

The drink comes in many varieties, but typically consists of iced tea containing small, black balls of tapioca that gather at the bottom of the cup and can be sucked up through an enlarged straw.

“Bubble teas are impacted,” said Eliot Hoff, spokesman for the group, though some varieties of the refreshment will be spared should the city Department of Health pass the mayor’s proposal in September.

If a cup of bubble tea contains more than 50 percent milk, as many do, it will not be subject to the ban.

But many varieties do not meet that criteria, and because they are served pre-sweetened, restaurants that peddle the sugary potables could be fined $200 after a six-month grace period expires.

That did not sit well with Lin Guye, who works at a bustling Flushing eatery and tea shop called Corner 28. She contended that customers could just buy large sugary drinks at a nearby grocery store, circumventing the reduced size she would be forced to sell.

Guye was questioned by City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) as he went on a walking tour of three businesses in the downtown area to gauge restaurateurs’ opinions on the ban.

Koo, a former Republican and the owner of a chain of pharmacies, is opposed to the ban because of possible implications it would have for the economy, as well as residents’ right to choose what they drink.

“I understand the mayor’s position,” Koo said. “But we have too many regulations on small businesses.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has staunchly defended his plan, which would only apply to restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues and food carts, as a way to cut down on rampant obesity and diabetes rates in the city and across the country.

The mayor cited statistics that show 58 percent of the city’s adults are overweight or obese, as are 40 percent of the city’s schoolchildren, and one in four teenagers across the country has diabetes or pre-diabetes, according to statistics provided by Bloomberg’s office.

Bloomberg contended that residents could still buy as much soda as they wanted, but they would have to purchase it in multiple bottles or cups, which the mayor hopes will make people realize the quantity they are actually consuming.

The walking tour was orchestrated by New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, which is going on a media offensive across the city at the behest of multinational soda manufacturers to pan Bloomberg’s proposal and paint it as an infringement on personal freedoms.

The group advertises itself as “made up of individuals, businesses and community organizations,” although it is backed by the beverage industry’s trade association, American Beverage Association.

In 2010, the association poured $13 million into a lobbying campaign seeking to defeat a 1-cent tax on sodas, according to a report from the New York Public Interest Research Group, which indicated that the American Beverage Association outspent any other lobbying group that year.

A man identifying himself as a representative from Coca-Cola also went on the walking tour.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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