Generation Soda

July 22, 2010

A few years ago, Allan Brandt wrote a book called “The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America,” which detailed how the Cigarette,  the Tobacco industry which produced and marketed it, and the science and medical industries which responded to its effects completely shaped the 20th Century.

Brandt’s work is fascinating; out of what could easily be depressing yet dry facts, Brandt crafted a page-turner of science, sociology, and modern American History. Recently I remembered this book when thinking randomly about the “soda epidemic” of the current day. Now, it’s melodramatic and hyperbolic to fully equate cigarettes and soda, I realize that and I’m not trying to do that. Admittedly, “epidemic” is a strong word to describe the situation and sugary caffeinated drinks can’t bear the sole blame for rising obesity rates. Yet since proposed Soda Taxes for many states have been suggested, arguments for both sides have bubbled up out of the wood work…here’s an op-ed piece from The New York Observer calling for a Soda Tax for the state of New York, and here’s a piece by an ultraconservative journal (Human Events) ridiculously denying any ill affects from drinking too much soda and mocking any proposed tax on it.

A combined culture of bad consumption and declining activity lifestyles is responsible for the obesity and ill health effects–fast food, less exercise, more Television, and yes, huge amounts of soda consumption. The above Journal decrying soda’s possible bad effect claims there’s no verifiable evidence of an obesity problem, “no statistically significant trend … for either boys or girls” since 1999.”  To flat-out deny an obesity problem in America is quite laughable, but to back it up with numbers from 1999 and now is head-scratching. A more accurate measure would be to look at Obesity rates from the 1950s and today–and although all such comparisons have slightly different numbers depending on the publication or source, I’ve yet to see a study show that there was less obesity in the ’50s than today. Granted, some stress the many changes that have occurred–more driving to work and school and less walking, more office and less outdoor work, more restaurant dining and less cooking and eating family dinners at home. Yet practically all studies have shown higher obesity and higher child obesity now than 50 and 60 years ago. Though soda can’t bear the full brunt, it bears an obvious part of the “weight.” The average child drank drastically more milk than soda 50 years ago and that ratio has been pretty much fully flipped for the average kid now. The nutrients and vitamins that milk supplies the bones, teeth and body with is thus gone from those formative years and replaced by sugar and extra unneeded calories. The amount of calories and sugar in soda isn’t debatable–knowing that and seeing someone drink 6 or so a day of them becoming obese and the cause and effect seems a no-brainer.

So while the cigarette defined a century, I’m wondering if Soda will have it’s heyday in a generation or two. Will it be a vice that gets moved to a responsible and moderate level of consumption soon? Unlike with the cigarette there is a moderate and safe level of soda consumption. Unlike the cigarette, a person won’t chemically bond with soda and go into withdrawal if they cut their consumption back to a more minimal level.

An interesting parallel with “Cigarette Century” and what’s going on with soda today is the level of PR and denial. The excellent journalist Eric Schlosser, who wrote ‘Fast Food Nation” and “Reefer Madness” was the driving force behind “Food Inc” which disturbed anyone who viewed it and rightfully so. Schlosser has pointed out, in addition to his attacks on corporate meat control and the fast-food industry, the effects of High Fructose Corn Syrup. HFCS, out of low-cost and high-profit yield, has become the primary soda sweetener…it’s also become an ingredient in thousands of other products (a humorous tie-in is Matt Damon’s film “The Informant”). Early studies by the scientific community showed the dangers of HFCS but recent studies have emerged to counter those claims…funded by the beverage industries themselves (just like the countering studies done by the Tobacco industry proved the healthful benefits of smoking as documented in “Century”). Do an average search for facts on HFCS and you’re likely to wade through a lot 0f false information funded by soda producers; so a good couple of links are here: HFCS and weight gain; soda and obesity; and a story that got a bit of coverage a few summers past was about how the non-sugar sweeteners in diet sodas still cause weight gain by “tricking” the body’s hormones that later cause chemical confusion on how the body is to react to real sugar is discussed here.

A huge criticism of proposed soda taxes is that they are feared to unfairly target the lower-income class. The above mentioned “Human Events” article points out that households with an income of 20K or less spend twice as much on soda as households with an income of 100K or greater. Numbers such as this are consistent with numbers regarding cigarettes, junk food, etc. But surely there has to be a way to use taxes on vices and “junk foods” to lower the cost of healthy options like fruits and vegetables. Of course there are other factors–availability of those healthier options and education of the need to consume them. Yet all of these factors seem possible and needed–being poor should not mean having to make bad health choices, although sociologically it seems segments of the population are intentionally pushed that way.

I’m not a “health freak,” and I do not think soda’s should be done away with. I do think all vices and consumption lifestyle choices should bear a tax higher than necessitates–if you enjoy a nice cigar and a cognac you should realize that should bear a tax before something like a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk should. I also realize the many reasons folks opt for a soda–teetotalers choose soda as their social drink, and even though moderate alcohol use yields some health benefits that soda does not, the reasons for choosing soda instead might be religious or addiction-related; most people need a bit of energy to get through the work day and not everyone develops a taste for coffee; and soda simply pairs popcorn and pizza better than anything else. But to drink soda all day every day, to run your veins through with sugar or sweetener, and to not recognize the connection this has with health problems in the country will hopefully soon be the mark of a past generation. Granted, needed more than a reduction in national soda intake is a reduction in the way the fast-food industry operates, the way the Meat industry is controlled by a few corrupt organizations, and the way the agricultural industry in the US doesn’t have the same safety precautions as such industries do in other industrialized countries. All of the motives for these are profit-based. If a company like Coca-Cola couldn’t make millions from getting life-long all-day every-day consumers, they wouldn’t be persuading kids to opt for Cola over water. What’s needed most of all is a restructuring of how we think about food in this country; and ultimately of moving food necessities, such as bread, fruits, vegetables, milk,grains, and clean,safe meat out of the realm of luxury and into the realm of available to all for little to no cost and of moving all luxury and/or vice foods into the realm of “bonus,” and perks which cost a little something more.


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