Sunday, February 14, 2010

Soda = Tobacco?

"Is soda the new tobacco?" asks Mark Bittman in the New York Times.

Like cigarettes, soda is clearly a health hazard. The average American drinks about 50 gallons of soda per year, and the prevalence of sugary, fizzy beverages is linked to the explosion of obesity and diabetes in children. As Bittman points out:
[S]ugared beverages are the No. 1 source of calories in the American diet, representing 7 percent of the average person’s caloric intake, according to government surveys, and up to 10 percent for children and teenagers. These calories, they point out, are worse than useless -- they’re empty, and contribute to a daily total that is already too high.
Efforts to implement soda taxes to curb consumption are increasing, but like Big Tobacco, the soda industry continues to "market[] heavily to children, claiming their products are healthy or at worst benign, and lobbying to prevent change." In fact, Big Soda's protests are almost comically similar to the tobacco industry's claims about the folly of reducing/quitting smoking. For example:
  • The president of the American Beverage Association, Susan Neely, "acknowledges that obesity is a problem but says: 'If you’re trying to manage people being overweight you need a variety of behavior changes to achieve energy balance — it can’t be done by eliminating one food from the diet.'”
  • J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst for a soda industry-sponsored advocacy group, argues that "there is no unique link between soda and obesity.”
  • PepsiCo's senior vice president of "global health policy," Derek Yach, claims that “simply pricing one product higher would lead to unknown effects on total dietary consumption. It may even lead to worse situations: people may stop spending on one food and eat more of another, so taxing high levels of sugar may lead to eating higher levels of fat.”
In other words, industry reps argue that a soda tax won't help slow the obesity epidemic, and might actually accelerate it because the thirsty hordes will rush to replace their 64-ounce Super Big Gulps with fatty death shakes or cupfuls of lard. Does this sound even remotely plausible?

If soda is truly like tobacco, then the good news is that education about the harmful effects of soda consumption will likely change people's behaviors and habits. As Bittman notes, "[t]he public war against tobacco has worked, if imperfectly: Americans smoke at half the rate they once did, half of all smokers have quit, and the tobacco companies finance strong antismoking campaigns."

I have a buddy who used to guzzle Dr. Pepper. Each day at work, he'd polish off a six-pack of the stuff while sitting at his desk. But once he came to understand exactly what it was he was ingesting, he put himself on a peculiar but effective diet, which he called "Meat-or-Soda."

The rules of the Meat-or-Soda Diet are pretty simple: Each day, you can choose to consume either meat or soda, but not both. My friend wasn't about to give up meat, so his soda consumption dropped significantly, and so did his weight.

Obviously, this isn't a diet I'd recommend to anyone who's vegetarian or otherwise already eating pretty healthfully, but it just might help move the needle for carnivores who drink nothing but soda.