Baltimore's Big Soda Moment: Why Access to Sugary Drink Information is a Civil Rights Issue

Baltimore's corners are often associated with the public health threat presented by illicit drug dealing and use but there is another, more unassuming, danger lurking inside corner stores and supermarkets: sugar-sweetened beverages.
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Baltimore's corners are often associated with the public health threat presented by illicit drug dealing and use but there is another, more unassuming, danger lurking inside corner stores and supermarkets: sugar-sweetened beverages.

The Baltimore City Council will consider a bill next week to include a warning label on sugary drinks similar to those that appear on tobacco products. Council members should support it as an important first step towards educating Baltimore City residents about the dangers of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages -- and as an opportunity to become the second jurisdiction in the nation to act on our increased knowledge about the connection between poor health and sugary drinks.

Understanding this link can also empower people to make healthier choices while improving public health.

The prevalence of sugary beverages like soda, sports and fruit-flavored drinks has become so normalized that very few people think twice about consuming them. Yet, overwhelming scientific evidence shows that they contribute to obesity, tooth decay, and type 2 diabetes; conditions that cause unnecessary pain, suffering, and early death for too many Americans.

African Americans, who comprise almost 65 percent of Baltimore's population, are disproportionately impacted by these preventable conditions. In 2010, blacks had a life expectancy 3.8 years shorter than whites primarily due to obesity-related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Especially at risk are black children, who are more likely to be obese, develop type 2 diabetes, and experience tooth decay than their white peers.

There is strong evidence that children and youths are influenced by advertisements that lead them to believe that it is harmless to consume sugary drinks on a regular basis. Moreover, research indicates that youths of color see more of these unhealthy ads and are targeted more heavily by sugary drink marketing than are white youths.

These beverage industry tactics contribute to an environment that undermines the health, longevity, and success of black and brown kids and communities in particular. As a result, the consumption of sugary drinks is not just a public health matter, it is also a civil rights imperative.

The cost of these poor health outcomes is not just borne by affected individuals and families. They are also shouldered by Baltimore and society as a whole. Projections show that the U.S. will spend $344 billion in obesity-related health care costs in 2018 if obesity trends continue at their current rate. Given the current burden of obesity and related chronic diseases in Baltimore City -- ranked dead last among Maryland counties in overall health outcomes, according to County Health Rankings -- it is a surety that our city will experience a disproportionate share of these avoidable costs.

The beverage industry argues that there is no clear link between sugary drinks and poor health, citing research they funded. Meanwhile, independent researchers have found that the opposite is true.

The industry also tends to take the position that physical activity can compensate for consuming sugary drinks. While it is true that exercise can help, it is also true that most Americans and Baltimoreans are not engaging in the amount of exercise necessary to completely offset their consumption of sugary drinks. And the question of physical activity ignores the lack of nutritional value offered by these drinks as well as their negative impact on oral health and those who may be vulnerable to developing type 2 diabetes.

As a public health advocate, I have spoken across the country on the issue of sugar-sweetened beverages for the better part of a decade. When talking to audiences I always ask the question: Do we love these unhealthy products more than we love ourselves? The answer is always a resounding no. Yet, it is hard for people to answer -- much less pose the question in the first place -- if they do not have an appropriate understanding of the dangers associated with sugary drinks.

Passage of the warning label bill would make Baltimore City a leader in the national effort to educate the public about sugar-sweetened beverages. Our council members should take this opportunity to build a healthier future for our children and our city while serving as a beacon of hope for the country.

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