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Controversy over health effects of sodas heats up | Timi Gustafson, R.D.
Are sodas going down the same path as tobacco did a few years ago? The issue of sugary drinks as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic has certainly gained more traction in recent months and not only in places like New York City where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed an outright ban on supersized soft drinks in bars and restaurants to curb overindulgence.
Cash-strapped towns all over the country like El Monte, California, are considering raising surtaxes on sweetened beverages sold within their city limits. The hope is that measures like these could serve as a source of much-needed revenue and also send a clear message that sodas are bad for your health. Consumers have a choice to cut back or pay more.
For Andre Quintero, El Monte’s mayor, there’s a clear connection between excessive soda consumption and health problems, comparable to tobacco use. “These drinks have a similar secondary impact,” he said in an interview (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/ la-me-el-monte-20120724,0,6515479.story) with the Los Angeles Times (7/24/2012). “It may not be to the lungs, but it will be obesity and diabetes and dental decay.” He said he was optimistic that the tax proposal of one cent per ounce of soda would be passed by voters, potentially generating as much as $7 million in annual income for the city coffers.
Whether taxing sodas by miniscule amounts will reduce people’s consumption is questionable. A recent Gallup poll (http://www.gallup.com/poll/156116/Nearly-Half- Americans-Drink-Soda-Daily.aspx?utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=syndication) found that soda drinks are still widely popular, with almost half of all Americans reporting to have at least one drink a day. Soda consumption was the highest among young adults, with 56 percent of 18 to 34 year olds drinking sodas daily, compared to 46 percent of people ages 35 to 46. Health experts say that even one glass daily is too much and may contribute to obesity, diabetes and other health problems.
In the meantime, health advocates are trying to find new ways to educate the public and influence behavior. As reported (http://www.latimes.com/health/boostershots/ la-heb-surgeon-general-sodas-20120720,0,7828722.story) by the Los Angeles Times
(7/20/2012), over 100 health organizations and public health departments, including the American Heart Association, the Boston Public Health Commission, the National
Association of County and City Health Officials, the UC Berkeley School of Public
Health, and the New York City and Philadelphia health departments, as well as more than two dozen renowned scientists, have signed a letter to the Surgeon General of the United States, requesting an official report on the health impact of sodas, similar to the one about tobacco in 1964.
“Soda and other sugary drinks are the only food or beverage that has been directly linked to obesity, a major contributor to coronary heart disease, stroke, type2 diabetes, and some cancers and a cause of psychosocial problems,” it says in the letter. “Yet, each year, the average American drinks about 40 gallons of sugary drinks, all with little, if any, nutritional benefit.” The petitioners expressed hope that a report issued by the Surgeon General “would pave the way for policy measures at all levels of government.”
Regardless whether government policies and other measures can be implemented and whether they even will have any substantial effects, it is clear that soda drinks are beginning to be viewed differently today than they were only a short while ago. “I think people are coming around to the notion that sugary drinks aren’t healthy, and one of the astonishing things is that capita consumption of carbonated drinks has gone down […], a big under-the-radar change in people’s drinking habits,” said Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and one of the organizers of the letter, to the L.A. Times (ibid.).
In response to the letter, the American Beverage Association (ABA) said in a statement (http://www.ameribev.org/news--media/news-releases--statements/more/280/)that the exclusive focus on sodas as a cause for obesity is misguided because the epidemic is worsening despite of already diminishing soda consumption in the U.S.
In truth, we don’t really know whether we are witnessing the beginning of a major shift in consumer behavior or just a flicker of interest in a subject that happens to show up in the news these days. In any case, right now it seems a step in the right direction, and little steps have a way of adding up.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).