New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg captured the attention of the nation last week when he proposed banning the sale by restaurants, movie theaters and street carts of any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg captured the attention of the nation last week when he proposed banning the sale by restaurants, movie theaters and street carts of any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces.

“Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible.’ New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something. I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do,” Bloomberg told The New York Times.

Bloomberg’s effort became easy, instant prey for late-night comedians. “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart noted sarcastically that he could order with impunity “14 pounds of pastrami garnished with seven pounds of beef tongue” at Carnegie Deli, followed by limitless fried food and desserts, but would become a lawbreaker if he attempted to wash these down with a Mountain Dew serving of more than 16 ounces.

The Los Angeles Times editorialized its skepticism: “There are food safety standards and nutritional mandates on school lunch programs. Manufacturers have to list the ingredients, calorie and fat content of packaged foods, and local governments are increasingly demanding the same kinds of disclosures from restaurants,” it wrote on Friday. “But telling the average person that he has to eat X or cannot eat Y goes a step further. It intrudes on personal decisions that consumers make with their own dollars that affect just their own bodies.”

Clearly, Bloomberg crossed a new line here regarding government action on public health. As a society, we’ve accepted restrictions on tobacco and alcohol. We acknowledge tobacco’s role in cancer, heart disease and other health problems. No one denies the dangers of alcohol abuse. But food and drink? That’s another story.

Setting aside our opinion on Bloomberg’s small-cup initiative, we’ll give the mayor credit for starting a discussion that an increasingly obese America needs to have. A country that once consumed soda in 6.5-ounce servings now regards a 20-ounce bottle or a mammoth fountain soda as a single serving. Sports drinks once consumed by athletes after heavy activity now are a surrogate soda for the sedentary — again, usually 20 ounces at a time.

Last week, The State Journal-Register editorial board heard from representatives of the Illinois Public Health Institute and Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity on a plan to institute an excise tax on sugary drinks, which they contend play a disproportionate role in causing obesity. They say that a penny-per-ounce excise tax would lead to a decrease in consumption of nearly 25 percent, and more than 185,000 fewer obese people in Illinois. They point to the sharp decline in smoking rates as cigarette taxes increased as a model for combating one contributor to the obesity crisis.

But with so many causes contributing to obesity, it’s hard to justify penalizing one group of products among dozens that, consumed irresponsibly, will add to your waistline.

Bloomberg is correct about soda serving sizes. Unless you are Michael Phelps, your body is not equipped to burn off the 500-plus calories of a 44-ounce convenience store soda (or even a daily 12-ounce can, in most cases). Those labels on the side of drink containers? They’re there for a reason. Read them. Make smarter choices. On your own.

The State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill.