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Health officials say it’s time to treat sodas like cigarettes

In a joint statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association said that sugary drinks represent a “grave threat” to child health, that we must take action to address, and that we should treat sodas like cigarettes.

They said:

Excess consumption of added sugars, especially from sugary drinks, poses a grave health threat to children and adolescents, disproportionately affecting children of minority and low-income communities. Public policies, such as those detailed in this statement, are needed to decrease child and adolescent consumption of added sugars and improve health.

They recommended that local governments take action against “Big Soda”, and I think their argument is pretty compelling. They noted that in 2009, carbonated beverage companies reported $395 million in youth-directed expenditures, with about 97% of that total directed to teens. As they explained:

Similar to tobacco companies, sugary drink manufacturers aim to appeal to children and adolescents by associating their product with celebrity, glamour, and coolness. Despite the existence of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an industry-initiated, self-regulatory body designed to limit marketing of unhealthful food and beverage products to children younger than 12 years, children and adolescents are frequently exposed to sugary drink advertisements.

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The statement goes on to explain that they believe programs like Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – what some people call “food stamps”), WIC, and school lunch programs alike all need to do a better job at helping people make healthier food choices and try to steer away from sugary drinks.

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They also note that while the research is unclear if nutritional labels actually help people make better choices, tobacco products are labeled as carcinogenic, so sugary drinks should have a similar warning to advise of potential health risks associated with drinking soda.

Taxes

The very first conclusion they draw is that governments should enforce a soda tax. A study published earlier this month in the American Journal of Public Health found that soda taxes actually work. Researchers monitored over 1500 people over a three year period from 2014 to 2017 in Berkeley, California. They found that consumption of sugary soda was less than half what it was before the tax.

They also said that as part of the tax, there should be a public health campaign to educate the public about the danger of consuming too much sugar.

The officials didn’t say what they thought the tax should be, just that “Metrics should be established to evaluate the impact of such a tax.” Thanks for that, it’s clear as mud. (The World Health Organization has previously suggested a tax in excess of 20%.)

There’s so much information available on the internet that it’s overwhelming for most people at times (myself included). People rave about doing Keto (until they’re off of it a couple weeks later, of course). We see headlines suggesting that “eating fat won’t make you fat, but sugar will“. And honestly, I’m not able to confirm or deny the legitimacy of things like that. I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a registered dietitian. I do know that my friend who is an RD has always said to limit sugar intake, though.

But unlike what some do with Keto, the answer isn’t to cut out all carbohydrates completely. You can do that if you want, but your brain needs sugar to function properly. So yet again, extremism isn’t the answer.

I’ll admit that on the surface, a ‘sugar tax’ is a bit of a government overreach. But at the same time, beverage companies have done an excellent job of embedding themselves into our culture. They’ve normalized the access to high-calorie, high-sugar drinks. For some people, calling a carbonated beverage a “coke” – regardless of what brand of drink we’re actually referring to – is normal. It’s just normal to have relatively inexpensive sugary drinks around us all the time. I know that if there was a ‘soda tax’ of some kind, I would probably end up drinking more water (which my wife tells me is a good thing).

One of my concerns for a ‘sugar tax’ would be those who receive SNAP/WIC/etc. Poverty is cyclic, and those who are low income often feel forced to buy less nutrient-dense foods because they’re cheaper. If foods with added sugar are suddenly 20% more expensive, it may place additional financial strain on those who are already experiencing poverty.

What I take away from this is that a massive amount of sugar isn’t healthy for you to eat (which is obvious, I know). But the push here is to educate the general public about the risk so they’re making an informed decision when purchasing a product with added sugar. It’s then up to you if you want to assume that risk by consuming the product (as is the case with tobacco products or alcohol currently).

So, you know, everything in moderation.

(Including moderation.)

Cover image via iStockphoto

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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