As human beings, we’re all programmed to like things that taste sweet. As a June 2012 article in the Journal of Nutrition pointed out, human desire for sweet taste spans all ages, races, and cultures. This may begin with breast milk, universally acknowledged as tasting sweet.
So it’s not surprising that most of us pursue food and drink that taste sweet. The problem today is the low cost and ready availability of sweeteners in our food supply. These have led us to consume more sugar, contributing to the current obesity epidemic.
In San Francisco, voters will decide in November whether the city can levy a “soda tax” of 2-cents-an-ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages. If the measure (Proposition E) passes, SF will become the first city in the nation to impose such a tax. Similar proposals have been defeated elsewhere, but if Prop. E passes, other communities will probably follow suit, so watch what happens in SF.
Prop. E almost didn’t make it onto the ballot. According to Heather Knight at the SF Chronicle, Mayor Ed Lee argued it would be a distraction on a lengthy ballot including other important issues, but it squeaked through the SF Board of Supervisors. It needs, however, more than a majority of voters in November to pass. It has to get two-thirds of the vote because it directs revenue to a specific purpose. This purpose is extremely worthwhile: programs benefiting children’s nutrition and physical education via the public schools, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Public Health Department, and nonprofit organizations.
The SF City Controller’s Office has provided key statistics in this fight. Right now, SF guzzles about 3 billion ounces of soda and other sugary beverages every year, but the city’s chief economist estimates that the tax could reduce consumption as much as 31 percent, and revenue generated by the tax could amount to as much as $54 million a year.
Besides the Board of Supervisors, the measure is supported by the SF school board, a host of PTAs, the teachers union, several medical groups, and local food banks like Project Open Hand, which provides healthy meals to seniors and the critically ill.
Now who in the world would oppose such a proposal? That’s easy: the American Beverage Association (the ABA). It seems that Big Soda is spending big bucks to diminish the possibility of passage. For one thing, it has enlisted opponents who argue that the tax will fall disproportionately on poor people. Most of the tax would be passed on to consumers, raising the retail price between 22 and 36 percent, and conservative SF Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders noted that less-educated and poor populations allocate a “larger proportion of their spending on sugar-sweetened beverages than other groups.” She also noted that the SF supervisors who voted against putting the tax on the ballot are “people of color who represent neighborhoods with many minority voters.” (Heather Knight recently reported that at least one of them has decided to endorse it.)
But aren’t these less-educated and less affluent residents the same people who have traditionally spent more on tobacco products than better-educated, more affluent groups? Yet in 2010 SF banned the sale of tobacco products at pharmacies, big-box stores, and grocery stores in the city. Many other communities have followed SF’s lead, and earlier this year pharmacy chain CVS banned their sale in its stores nationwide. Determined smokers, who need to find tobacco and pay more for it, seem to be getting along just fine.
The latest news makes clear how big a stake Big Soda has in defeating Prop. E. According to Heather Knight’s most recent update, a DC public affairs firm has already received almost a million dollars from the campaign to defeat Prop. E funded by the ABA. The firm produces the noisy commercials blaring on TV and radio in a number of languages. This is the same firm that defeated efforts to curtail consumption of sugary soda in NYC and two small cities in California, and it has already spent $800,000 to defeat a proposed soda tax in Berkeley. A spokeswoman for Yes on E notes that opponents will “stop at nothing to protect their profits…” and predicts they will spend much more before the November election.
My go-to source on all things nutrition-related is Nutrition Action (NA), a newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). NA has recently made clear how detrimental sugar-sweetened sodas can be. In July/August 2014, it quoted Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health: “The data are pretty compelling that we should basically cut out sugar-sweetened beverages.”
JoAnn Manson, director of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, noted “strong evidence [these] beverages lead to weight gain because people [don’t tend to] compensate for liquid calories by reducing calories elsewhere.” But weight gain isn’t the only result. Manson and others tracked about 75,000 nurses and 39,000 health professionals for 22 years and found that those who drank a sugary soft drink at least once a day had about a 30 percent higher risk of diabetes than those who drank one less than once a month.” According to other researchers, including Kimber Stanhope at UC Davis, studies show that a high level of fructose (found in sweeteners like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) impairs insulin sensitivity, a risk factor for diabetes.
In September 2014, NA lobbed even more ammunition at sugary beverages, reporting a study showing that sugar-sweetened sodas may raise the risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a disease that causes painful, chronic inflammation of the joints. Researchers who tracked 186,900 women for over 20 years found that those who consumed at least one sugary soda per day had a 63 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with the most common kind of RA than those who consumed less than one per month. Diet-soda drinkers had no higher risk of RA.
Big Soda is beginning to see the handwriting on the wall. Roberto Ferdman reported in the Washington Post in September that the ABA has agreed with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper/Snapple to cut the calories in their beverages by 20 percent. How? By promoting smaller portions, as well as zero and low-calorie offerings. Ferdman noted one reason for this concession: soda consumption has been declining in the U.S. for over a decade. But soda is still a big part of the American diet, and 20 percent less sugar isn’t a whole lot.
Ferdman quotes Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director, who urges the industry to go further than the proposed voluntary measures and drop its opposition to taxes and warning labels on sugary drinks: “We need much bigger and faster reductions [in sugar consumption] to adequately protect the public’s health. Those taxes could further reduce calories in America’s beverage mix even more quickly, and would raise needed revenue for the prevention and treatment of soda-related diseases.”
We all love to consume things that taste sweet. But let’s set some limits. Sugar-laden drinks like regular Coke and Pepsi? No one needs more than one a day, and kids don’t need any. Let’s impose reasonable taxes, add warning labels, and make sure we get our calories in far more nutritious ways.
Sure, gimme a little sugar. But just a little is more than enough.