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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 07/09/2012

Are sugary drinks to blame for obesity?


A 64-ounce drink is displayed alongside other soft drink cup sizes at a news conference at City Hall in New York in May. (Andrew Burton - Reuters)

An advocacy group affiliated with the American Cancer Society asked the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last week to direct the surgeon general to fully investigate the relationship between human health and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) wants the surgeon general’s office to produce an “unbiased and comprehensive report” on the matter, much as it did with tobacco use in the early 1960s.

ACS CAN President Christopher Hansen wrote to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on July 3; here are a couple of key paragraphs from the letter:

We know there is a direct link between excessive consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, and the adverse health effect can be profound in children as they grow into adults and throughout their lives.  As was the case in 1964, when the Surgeon General first revealed to the broad American public the dangers of tobacco consumption, an unbiased and comprehensive report on the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages could have a major impact on the public’s consciousness and perhaps begin to change the direction of public behavior in their choices of food and drinks.
If we look back at the history of the nation, we know that the increasing incidence of obesity among the American public has overtaken us almost overnight.  There seems to be a consensus about the problem and the cause, but what is lacking is an articulate, science-based and comprehensive national plan of action.  We believe the combined resources and credibility of the Surgeon General could help us get there.

I for one would welcome such an unbiased and comprehensive report. I am no fan of soda or any other sugar-sweetened (or artificially sweetened, for that matter) beverages and never drink them myself.  But it seems to me that we should take a hard look at all the evidence before we go around imposing soda taxes and banning the sale of big cups of pop.

The public health community embraces such actions. In May, for instance, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued recommendations for combating obesity that included support for a soda tax. And the American Medical Association adopted a policy at its June meeting supporting the taxing of SSBs, suggesting that revenues generated by the tax support anti-obesity and education programs.

The IOM also calls for prohibiting the sale of SSBs in schools. But even in the absence of such a blanket prohibition, a report published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine last week showed a drop in the availability of those beverages in public elementary schools between 2006 and 2011, with SSBs available in only about 12 percent of schools.

The American Beverage Association (whose interests here are obvious) countered the IOM’s soda recommendations with a statement, part of which I quote here:

Obesity is a serious public health issue facing our nation, and we all must work together to solve it.  We commend the Committee for their systematic analysis and for recognizing that physical activity plays an important role in a comprehensive solution.  However, advocating discriminatory policies that uniquely focus on sugar-sweetened beverages is the wrong approach. In fact, government data shows that sugar-sweetened beverages account for only 7 percent of the calories in the average American’s diet, and have been declining for more than a decade while obesity continued to rise. Focusing on a small and declining source of calories in the diet is a wrong-headed approach that distracts from meaningful solutions that promote healthier diets overall, as well as increased physical activity.

The government data the statement refer to can be found in a chart featured in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which you can access here. That 7 percent appears to be an average across age groups, genders and ethnicities, among which there is some variation.

As I noted, the American Beverage Association has skin in this game. But is it possible that the organization has a good point?  

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 07/09/2012

Tags:  sugar-sweetened beverages, obesity

 
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