Uh-huh, you bet, there you go, have a nice day, no problem at all, sir. With all the legendary courtesy of the American catering industry, the white-hatted staff were piling each plate with enough calories to feed a family of Eritreans for a week. There were barons of beef, swaddled in ribbons of delicious yellow fat. The bed of the Atlantic had been denuded to provide the tails – just the tails – of a thousand lobsters. It was a kind of gastronomic United Nations: here the Mexican enchiladas, there the Chinese chop suey, and everything served on an all-you-can-eat basis, where all-you-can-eat turns out to be a very large quantity indeed.
So far, it would be fair to say that New York and London have responded in much the same way. We all champion healthier eating; we sing the praises of vegetables; we wag our fingers at cheeseburgers; we extol the benefits of exercise. Kate Hoey has done wonders with her grassroots sports programme, aimed at rousing inactive kids and adults from the sofa.
New York is next month installing a cycle hire scheme, modelled on London’s, in the hope of getting people out of their cars. But now Mike Bloomberg is going a stage further. Mike is a businessman turned politician, but he began as a scientist, with a training in physics.
As he puts it, you cannot get around the laws of thermodynamics, and if you eat more than your body burns, you will get fatter. That is why he is asking the New York Health Board – which he effectively controls – to approve a ban on soft drink cups larger than 16 ounces. If you want to drink more than 16 ounces of Sprite or Coke or Dr Pepper, you will be perfectly at liberty to do so: but you will have to buy more than one cup. And he quotes all sorts of tests that show human beings will generally eat what is put in front of them. If you put more in front of them, they will eat more; if you reduce the size of the portion, they will eat less.
It sounds, on the face of it, like a pretty hysterical piece of nanny-statery. Mike Bloomberg has appeared to cast himself in the role of Mr Bumble the beadle, denouncing all those kids who have the effrontery to ask for more. As you can imagine, the proposal is the butt of plenty of jokes on TV shows, and a rabid reaction from Big Soda: an indignant Coca-Cola has been on the phone from Atlanta.
For those of us who are instinctively libertarian, it is all a bit difficult – at least philosophically. But never mind the philosophy; what about the practical effects? This is the same Bloomberg, after all, whose smoking ban was also derided, and then imitated around the world. His action against smoking is now seen as a big step in reducing a particularly nasty addiction that had claimed the lives of millions. Across the West, we are seeing a falling away in the number of cancers contracted, a fall in the number of deaths. If we could reduce the consumption of sugary drinks, and release some children from the captivity of fatness, might that not be worth exploring?
By next April, we will have a new and improved anti-obesity strategy in London, and yes, we will look at the practicality of Bloomberg’s ideas. In the meantime, I think we should pay tribute to the continuing boldness of the Mayor of New York. He has been a public official for longer than Obama. He has run a corporation far bigger than Romney’s. He is the 11th richest man in the US, with wealth of $22 billion, and yet he still cares about the size of paper cups and childhood obesity. There is still time for him to change his mind and go for the White House. Bloomberg for President!