Soda: A Sin We Sip Instead of Smoke?
By MARK BITTMAN
Published: February 12, 2010
Is soda the new tobacco?
In their critics’ eyes, producers of sugar-sweetened drinks are acting a lot like the tobacco industry of old: marketing heavily to children, claiming their products are healthy or at worst benign, and lobbying to prevent change. The industry says there are critical differences: in moderate quantities soda isn’t harmful, nor is it addictive.
The problem is that at roughly 50 gallons per person per year, our consumption of soda, not to mention other sugar-sweetened beverages, is far from moderate, and appears to be an important factor in the rise in childhood obesity. This increase is at least partly responsible for a rise in what can no longer be called “adult onset” diabetes — because more and more children are now developing it.
Attention is being paid: Last week, the Obama administration announced a plan to ban candy and sweetened beverages from schools. A campaign against childhood obesity will be led by the first lady, Michelle Obama. And a growing number of public health advocates are pushing for even more aggressive actions, urging that soda be treated like tobacco: with taxes, warning labels and a massive public health marketing campaign, all to discourage consumption.
A tax on soda was one option considered to help pay for health care reform (the Joint Committee on Taxation calculated that a 3-cent tax on each 12-ounce sugared soda would raise $51.6 billion over a decade), and President Obama told Men’s Health magazine last fall that such a tax is “an idea that we should be exploring. There’s no doubt that our kids drink way too much soda.”
But with all the junk food and U.F.O.’s (unidentifiable food-like objects) out there, why soda? Why a tax? And, most important, would it work?
To the beverage industry, the idea is not worth considering. Susan Neely, the president of the American Beverage Association, 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.”
Even if soda consumption were to drop, say critics of the tax, a drop in childhood obesity isn’t guaranteed. “Simply pricing one product higher,” says Derek Yach, a senior vice president of global health policy at PepsiCo, the big food company that has spoken the most seriously about building a healthier portfolio, “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.”
Still, the idea of a special tax on soda, similar to those on tobacco, gasoline and alcoholic beverages, is attracting more interest. Advocates of a tax note that sugared 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.
“What you want,” says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, “is to reverse the fact that healthy food is too expensive and unhealthy food is too cheap, and the soda tax is a start. Unless food marketing changes, it’s hard to believe that anything else can work.”