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Big Gulps for Little Leagues: Health advocates fight beverage industry’s diversion tactics

Big Gulps for Little Leagues: Health advocates fight beverage industry’s diversion tactics

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Is exercise enough to offset the effects of sweetened beverages? Industry allies have suggested so.
Is exercise enough to offset the effects of sweetened beverages? Industry allies have suggested so.

Public health advocates don’t typically have billion-dollar marketing budgets.

So when they spot an attempt to put a scientific spin on efforts to protect the sugar-sweetened beverage industry, they start banging on doors.

The California Center for Public Health Advocacy is co-sponsoring a California bill to put warning labels on sugary drinks. The center immediately sent out an email blast calling on people to write letters to the editor in response to Lisa Katic’s piece in Bay Area News Group publications arguing that the attempt to label sugar sweetened beverages as contributors to obesity and diabetes was misguided and ultimately bound for failure.

So far, the Bay Area News Group has published two critical letters.

Registered dietitian Diane Woloshin, the Nutrition Services Director for the Alameda County Public Health Department, wrote:

Consultant Lisa Katic's attempt to minimize the major role sugary drinks play in the nation's Type 2 diabetes and obesity epidemics is taken directly from the beverage industry's playbook. Yes, sugary drink consumption is decreasing thanks to growing awareness of the link between added sugar and chronic diseases. But it's going up among a critical demographic – teenagers. If this trend continues, one in three children born today, including half of Latino and African-American children, will develop diabetes in their lifetime. … Meanwhile, consultants on their payroll admonish individuals to make better choices, absolving industry of any culpability.

And Bernadine Temple, a consulting nutritionist in Hayward, wrote:

On the contrary, research studies in various countries, including the U.S., have documented that sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading cause of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. … I'm well aware that my fellow dietitians will sell and push anything for their clients. I saw this when I testified in Sacramento years ago to get junk food snacks out of California schools. I was the only dietitian who spoke and supported this bill. Other dietitians testified in support of the junk food industry. Money talks.

(I should note that I have no idea whether Woloshin or Temple saw the center’s email request. I am just including them because they share some of the same concerns the center shared in its email.)

So how does someone argue against the seemingly rational, seemingly well-intentioned argument that people should go on drinking as much soda as they want as long as they exercise, too?

With facts.

Read this transcript of a 2010 interview by Kojo Nnamdi of Lisa Katic and Dr. Scott Kahan, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness.

Nnamdi makes the same mistake as the Bay Area News Group by not calling out Katic’s clients. He calls her a “food industry advisor.” Kahan really gets the academic win here. He says:

We have more – better evidence right now for the unhealthful effects of sweetened soft drinks and other sugary junk foods in terms of weight gain, obesity, diabetes and decreased healthy nutrients than we did for tobacco several years ago before we started initiating policy and environmental interventions to try to decrease that. And it's had much success.

And what about taxes on sugary drinks? The food industry – through reasonable sounding consultants like Katic – says over and over that we can’t legislate behavior and that taxes are an unfair penalty on a treat that everyone should be able to enjoy. “We do have a serious problem in the country right now,” Katic says during the interview. “And taxing foods really is not going to deter people or teach them how to fit it into a healthy diet.”

Here’s what Kahan says:

We also, I think, have better evidence in terms of taxation today, in terms of sweetened beverages, compared to what we had in terms of tobacco when we started increasing the tax on it about 30 years ago. So I think this is actually a pretty good avenue. And it certainly won't solve the obesity epidemic and nobody says that it will, but it's one of a number of avenues that can address this, just like we took a number of avenues in terms of tobacco and had really fantastic results over the course of the last few decades.

There are a lot of differences between sugar-sweetened beverages and tobacco, of course, but don’t be fooled by the argument that people can just run a little faster or do more power yoga to make up for all those extra calories. A range of factors have made the United States one of the least healthy high-income countries on the planet, and it makes a lot of sense to isolate those factors as best we can and find workable solutions for each. The one point where public health advocates and food industry advocates will agree is that there is no silver bullet.

As with tobacco and cancer, though, you certainly can save a lot of lives and eliminate a lot of suffering by finding ways to reduce dangerous habits.

Photo by Jeff Drongowski via Flickr.

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