Anti-Soda Campaigns Make Progress Despite of Pushback from Beverage Industry

Soda CansSodas add hundreds of calories a day to the typical American diet, according to a new government investigation. Over half of all Americans drink varying amounts of sugary beverages on most days. Adults consume daily an average of 336 calories from sodas and kids are not far behind.

Health Advocates Are Reminded of the Tobacco Wars

These are the findings of a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of its “National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,” which is widely acknowledged among experts as the gold standard for evaluating food- and beverage-related consumer habits. The results are based on over 17,000 interviews between 2005 and 2008.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one single source of calories in the American diet and account for about half of all added sugars that people consume,” said Dr. Rachel Johnson, a nutrition expert at the University of Vermont, speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association (AHA). The association advises that people should consume not more than 36 ounces or about 450 calories from sugary drinks – a week.

The CDC study has been released less than two weeks after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) withheld its support for a proposal to exclude soda drinks from New York City’s food stamp program, which was championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is also known for his strong anti-smoking advocacy.

With anti-soda legislation still facing a rough road ahead, consumer advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) say it’s time to think of more effective strategies to increase awareness of the health risks from excessive soda consumption. “Reducing the consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks would be a major public health victory and would help reduce health care costs for all levels of government,” the group wrote in a statement. CSPI announced a new campaign called “Life’s Sweeter With Fewer Sugary Drinks.”

What’s required in this ongoing battle against the health hazards from sodas is an involvement of health experts, civic organizations, youth groups, civil rights groups and many others, according to CSPI director Michael F. Jacobson. He pointed out that the worst health problems caused by excessive soda consumption occur among minorities, the poor and the young. “Not since the anti-tobacco campaigns has there been a product so worthy of a national health campaign,” he said.

Despite of New York City’s recent setback, there are signs that the anti-soda movement is catching on in many more parts of the country. In Boston, soda sales have recently been banned from city property. Public schools are no longer allowed to sell sugary beverages on campus. An extensive media campaign against soda consumption that specifically targets parents of young children is in the works. Later this month, the Los Angeles County Health Department plans to implement a host of similar policies.

In the meantime, there has been considerable pushback coming from the beverage industry. Soda makers have sued health departments from New York to California. The industry, which insists that it only defends itself against baseless attacks, has filed numerous requests for scientific proof of the claims made by government agencies.

Anti-soda advocates say that these requests for documentation, which often require hundreds of staff hours from cash-strapped governments on the local and state level, are only made to sabotage new health policies before they can get off the ground. They come directly from the tobacco industry’s playbook, according to Ian McLaughlin, an attorney at the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity in Oakland, California. “It is, in our opinion, an effort to overwhelm or smother government employees, who already have too much to do,” he said.

Santa Clara County in California received subpoena letters asking for records relating to its “Rethink Your Drink” education program. Similar notifications were sent to Chicago and Seattle county governments for their publications connected to beverage education efforts, according to Reuters (“Soda Makers Escalate Attacks Over Obesity,” 7/29/2011).

The American Beverage Association (ABA) says that food and beverage makers are being unfairly singled out. “Sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving health issues like obesity and diabetes. In fact, recently published data from CDC researchers show that sugar-sweetened beverages play a declining role in the American diet, even as obesity is increasing,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, director of communications for the ABA.

From 2009 to 2010, the ABA, Coke and Pepsi, two of the largest producers of sodas, have collectively spent $60 million on lobbying efforts against raising taxes on sugary beverages to cover obesity-related health care costs, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics (Reuters ibid.).

In going after public health campaigns, the ABA is taking its cues from the tobacco wars of the 1990s. Back then, tobacco companies embarked on a Freedom of Information effort, targeting government agencies for their anti-smoking legislation, according to a report by the National Cancer Institute.

“For beverage manufacturers, the issue of obesity is kind of Armageddon,” said Tom Pirko, an industry consultant. He may have hit the nail on the head. Once the evidence that tobacco use causes cancer became overwhelming, people finally started paying attention and smoking went down dramatically. When the connection between sugary drinks and obesity becomes similarly clear, a large-scale change of consumer behavior will likely follow. In other words, if it’s no longer considered cool to smoke today, it may no longer be cool to guzzle sodas tomorrow. Obviously, there is a long way to go.

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