Once upon a time, kids drank milk nearly every night with dinner, and a "coke" was rare treat. Today, dozens of sugary, carbonated beverages are a common sight during meal time. They also fill the shelves of supermarkets, vending machines and restaurant counters. That’s why they are in the cross-hairs of health advocates "Fighting Fat." ideastream® health reporter Gretchen Cuda has the first installment in this week’s special coverage of the obesity epidemic.
CUDA: Most convenience stores have an entire wall of refrigerator cases lined with drinks– all high in sugar and low in nutritional value. Coke, Pepsi, Snapple, Red Bull an assortment of sports drinks, sweetened teas, energy drinks and ever flavor of soda imaginable. And for good reason, according to Kelly Brownell who directs the Rudd Center for food policy and obesity at Yale University.
BROWNELL: The consumption of sugared beverages in the United States has skyrocketed and surpassed the consumption of milk in the 1990s – and that’s true for both adults and children. The average population consumption in the United States is now about 50 gallons of these sugared beverages a year.
CUDA: That’s the rough equivalent of a 20 oz. bottle every single day. One study showed that more than two thirds of American’s consume more calories from sugared beverages than any other food.
Ok, so Americans drink a lot of sugary drinks. What’s wrong with that? Public Health professor Kelley Brownell breaks it down.
BROWNELL: The problems are as follows: the beverages are the single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet. Second, the body doesn’t seem to recognize calories very well when they’re delivered in liquids. And third, the marketing of these products is so relentless, so powerful and so persuasive, that people think these are things that they should drink all day
CUDA: Brownell and other health advocates say sugared drinks are making us fat and its time to call in the “food police.” They want legislation that restricts marketing of sugary beverages, and would impose a special “sugar tax” on soda, 20 cents for every 20oz bottle, arguing that just like cigarettes, sugared drinks are a public health hazard.
Advocates also claim a sugar tax could reduce consumption by nearly 25 percent – enough, they say, to cut obesity related health care costs by 50 billion dollars over a 10-year period. The Obama Administration has signaled it might look favorably on such a tax. Diet drinks would not be subject to the tax.
The food industry, not surprisingly, is fighting back. Take this commercial by a group called American’s Against Food Taxes
COMMERCIAL: Families round here are counting pennies to get through this economy, so when we hear about another tax it gets our attention. Washington is talking about another tax on juice drinks and soda. They say it’s only pennies, well those pennies add up when you’re trying to feed a family. Washington, if you’re listening, what doesn’t seem like much to you, can be a lot to us. Tell congress. No taxes on juice drinks and sodas.
CUDA: The group describes itself as a coalition of concerned citizens, though the members listed on its website are almost exclusively supermarkets, restaurant and marketing associations. But taxing food –a basic human necessity—is a tough sell for many Americans. Currently, most states don’t have a punitive tax on foods or beverages that are considered unhealthy, but 33 states, including Ohio, do apply sales taxes to soft drinks – which are not defined as food. In fact, Ohio did pass an additional tax on soda nearly 2 decades ago that was a fraction of what advocates are calling for today – only to have it overwhelmingly overturned by voters a few years later.
Sweet drinks, of course, are hardly alone in contributing to America’s weight gain and that’s why some health experts aren’t sold on a sugar drink tax. Eileen Seeholzer directs the weight loss management center at Metro Health Medical Center
SEEHOLZER: Sugary drinks are difficult to tease out with weight gain because usually people having a lot of sugary drinks are also eating chips, are also eating fast food, are also eating French fries. One of the things we cannot say is that absolutely in all people soda pop with sugar in it leads to obesity.
CUDA: Seeholzer also doubts a sugar tax would change behavior. Here’s a case in point from a Lakewood convenience store.
SOT:// Drinks clanking
CUDA: Excuse me, that drink has sugar in it right?
CUSTOMER: Yes - tons.
CUDA: If that cost you an extra 20 cents would that change your decision to buy it?
CUSTOMER: Not one bit. I'm still going to drink it.
CUDA: How much would it have to cost before you would buy diet instead?
CUSTOMER: I'm a fat guy for life, I'm not going to be buying diet anything. I don't think a tax on the sugar is going to make me try and be healthier.
CUDA: But if a tax won’t work, what will?
SEEHOLZER: What we know about people is that people do what’s easiest. So a lot of people feel that the approach needs to be making convenient the healthier choice, and making it less convenient the unhealthy choice.
CUDA: But in order to do that, local and national obesity experts agree: popular opinion has to change. Apples and bottled water won’t be the grab-n-go foods of choice at the convenience store if people would rather have a bag of cool ranch Doritos and a Pepsi. And Brownell says that’s where the marketing dollars have public health out-gunned.
BROWNELL: Right now the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the single greatest funder of research on childhood obesity. They are spending at the moment, 100 million dollars a year to address this problem. That’s a lot of money. The food industry spends that much ever year by January 4th; just marketing, just unhealthy foods, just to children.
CUDA: Both adults AND children are victims of marketing and calculated convenience. It’s no accident that at amusement parks and sporting events salty foods like popcorn, nuts, hot dogs and hamburgers are sold alongside 32 ounce sodas –they taste good together, and the profit margin on a little sugared syrup and carbonated water is enormous. Even grocery stores know that pairing foods sells more. Lauren Melnick, a dietician with the Ohio State University Extension School cites a study in the Journal of Marketing.
MELNICK: They found when soda was facing chips or pretzels or any of the snack items, that sales increased by about 9%.
CUDA: Experts say it will take the heft of the federal government to match the food industry’s influence on America’s love affair with soft drinks – and tax or no tax-when it comes to children, the government may be poised to do just that. Just last month, the same day first lady Michelle Obama urged food companies to put less fat, salt and sugar in foods and reduce marketing of unhealthy products to children, Pepsi, the world's second-biggest soft-drink maker, announced it would remove full-calorie sweetened beverages from schools in more than 200 countries by 2012. Coca-Cola changed its global sales policy earlier in the month to say it won't sell any of its drinks in primary schools world-wide unless parents or districts ask.
Both Pepsi and Coca-Cola, adopted voluntary guidelines to reduce sugary drinks in U.S. schools in 2006, and according to a recent report by the American Beverage Association, sales of full-calorie soft drinks in U.S. schools fell 95% between 2004 and 2009.
//SOT : Sound of can cracking open, and soda being poured into a glass.
If health advocates have their way, sugar in Coke, Pepsi and other drinks will be the nostalgic taste of a “past” generation. Gretchen Cuda, 90.3
Music tail: “ I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony… I’d like to buy the world a coke and keep it company …..
HOST BACK-ANNOUNCE: You can find links to all the reporting on obesity by ideastream, the Plain Dealer and WKYC-channel three at our website: wcpn-dot-org Just look for “fighting fat.”