Government Has a Pivotal Role to Play in War on Obesity

carbonated soft drink bottles...
carbonated soft drink bottles...

This year, America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the war on tobacco. Through a comprehensive campaign that included health warnings, public education, and taxes, anti-tobacco campaigns have stigmatized a deadly habit, saving millions of lives and billions of dollars in healthcare costs.

The pivotal point came in 1964 when the government could no longer ignore the overwhelming body of research showing a direct link between smoking and lung cancer. For decades, the tobacco industry trumped up their sponsored research to pretend otherwise. They mobilized legislators, media and hired advocates to suggest the federal, state, and local government had no role in this issue. Tobacco CEOs stood in front of a Congressional committee, raising their right hands and swearing under penalty of perjury that their products were safe.

A half a century later, soda companies are stealing straight from the tobacco industry's playbook. Multinational beverage companies are pulling out all the stops to counter overwhelming scientific evidence that soda and other junk drinks - products delivering massive jolts of liquid sugar - are uniquely harmful, contributing directly to epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.

Why does big soda fear government intervention? Because they know it takes an entity as large as the state or federal government to have a meaningful impact on their slick, multi-billion dollar marketing campaigns. For every dollar spent on nutrition and diabetes education, the soda industry can toss a hundred at television ads, celebrity endorsements and product placements. Only strategic public policy responses like a soda tax can provide a balance to their over-the-top marketing efforts.

We've already seen them roll out their publicity machine, spending millions in small communities like Richmond to stop local soda taxes. Expect the pace to pick up. Senator Monning's sugary drink tax (SB 622) is ground zero for an industry that just lost the battle in Mexico, where that nation responded to out of control obesity rates and skyrocketing diabetes cases by levying a soda tax.

The soda industry's first line of defense is denial. "It's not soda; it's hamburgers, it's ice cream, it's candy bars."

At first, their arguments might sound convincing. But, for anyone willing to go beyond the sound bite and look at the science, their flabby argument is quickly deflated. Unlike any of the other products that the beverage industry tries to implicate, theirs is the only non-food item - it offers no nutritional benefit, just a whopping 16 teaspoons of sugar in the average 20 ounce soda. While those liquid calories pile on the weight, they do not trigger our "full mechanism," tricking our metabolism into seeking out yet more calories.

Even more damning, soda and its cohort of sugary beverages distinguish themselves as the single largest contributor of added calories to the American diet since the obesity crisis began some 30 years ago - responsible for more than 40 percent of those additional calories.

It is the impact of those soda calories that necessitates government intervention. Weight gain has transformed our nation, leading to a doubling of diabetes cases and more people with heart attacks, hypertension and some cancers. The cost of all this - nearly $53 billion a year in California according to a 2009 study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy -- is too large to ignore, especially for a government that has to shoulder a major share of those costs. We have to address the problem and start with the largest contributor - sugary drinks. A statewide soda tax that funds children's health and physical activity programs is smart thinking and good government.