N.Y. - Health Board Set to Hear Metzitzah B'peh, Soda Ban

New York's Board of Health usually deals with topics like lead paint and tuberculosis, but this week is expected to draw heated arguments on two contentious subjects: a ban on large sugary drinks and the possibility of babies contracting herpes through a circumcision ritual.

On Monday, the 11-member panel is set to hear public comments on a proposal to require parental consent for circumcisions practiced by ultra-Orthodox Jews in which the mohel, or religious leader, sucks blood from the baby's wound. Then, on Tuesday, a hearing is scheduled on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, delis and cinemas.

The so-called "soda ban," which city officials say is aimed at combating obesity, has sparked a campaign sponsored by the American Beverage Association called "New Yorkers for Beverage Choices." The group has flown airplane banners over Coney Island, posted messages on movie theater marquees and spearheaded an anti-ban petition with more than 82,000 signatures. A rally to protest the proposed ban is scheduled for Monday morning in front of City Hall.

Chanel Caraway, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that the department had received 4,200 written comments in favor and 570 against.

Critics of the proposed rule, including City Council Members Letitia James and Melissa Mark-Viverito, said it wouldn't effectively address the problem of obesity and would unfairly penalize small businesses such as pizza shops and delis, while allowing convenience stores nearby to sell the drinks. They have also questioned the power of the Board of Health to enact such a change.

Samantha Levine, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg, said the board is comprised of medical experts who "will consider science when making their decision." Mr. Bloomberg appoints the board members.

As a public debate on the sugary drink ban plays out, a quieter controversy is stirring in New York's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

At issue is an element of some circumcision ceremonies in which the mohel uses his mouth to suck blood from the baby's penis. The city proposes requiring parents to provide written consent for a circumcision involving "direct oral suction."

A Department of Health study found that this practice, called metzitzah b'peh, increases the risk of a herpes infection, which can be fatal for infants.

From November 2000 to December 2011, 11 babies were infected with herpes after Jewish ritual circumcisions, according to the study. Two died.

A coalition opposing the proposed rule says the city's study was too small-scale to be statistically significant. The city hasn't documented a direct link between a mohel and an infected infant through DNA fingerprinting. The group said the rule is an unwarranted government intrusion in a religious practice.

"We are fully convinced that it presents no danger," said Rabbi David Niederman, a spokesman for the Central Rabbinical Congress of the USA and Canada, a group based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


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