Hot! Stopping the soda bulge: Why we need to consider restricting sugary beverages

NationalPost.com – Life
Jun 12, 2012.    Dr. James Aw

It’s been a remarkable couple of weeks in the battle against sugar-sweetened drinks, which include such beverages as pop, sport drinks or sweetened teas. For example, on Thursday, a former head of Coca-Cola’s U.S. marketing division broke with his past when he spoke at a “soda summit” that gathered public health experts to Washington, D.C., to brainstorm about how to limit soft drink consumption.

The executive, Todd Putnam, said that when he worked at Coke more than a decade ago, the predominant goal was to “drive more ounces into more bodies more often.” He described the feeling of triumph he felt when he saw a graph showing that consumption of a sugary soda had surpassed milk consumption. “We weren’t about trying to beat Pepsi or Mountain Dew,” Putnam said at the summit. “We were about trying to beat everything.”

Putnam has since had a change of heart and now is trying to help public health officials market healthy food the same way “Big Soda” markets soft drinks. Then there’s New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent proposal to limit the size of the city’s beverage containers. What he’s proposing is to ban the sale of any sweetened drink — whether pop, energy drink or anything else — in serving portions bigger than 16 ounces (that’s 473 mL in Canadian metric). Grocery stores would be able to sell larger servings, but the law would apply to fast-food franchises, delis, sports arenas and movie theatres.

And the same week, on the other side of the continent, the California town of Richmond made headlines for a proposal that would tax at a rate of one cent per ounce the sale of sweetened drinks. Funds generated by the tax would be directed toward nutritional education, after-school programs and other active lifestyle efforts.

Such news prompted me to wonder what was happening in Canada along these lines. After all, sweetened drinks such as pop are a big contributor to the obesity epidemic. What are we doing to limit pop consumption in Canada? I had a researcher contact Bill Jeffery, Canada’s national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, which is the organization that staged the “soda summit” in Washington, D.C.

“From a nutritional policy standpoint, Canada remains a backwater,” Jeffery said. “There are a lot of good ideas floating around, but not much action.” In fact, he says, he’s troubled by the federal government’s efforts to make it easier for pop manufacturers to put caffeine into carbonated non-cola beverages. “That’s an addictive substance, caffeine, that could end up in more soft drinks, encouraging people to drink more. And that’s exactly the wrong direction from where we want to go.”

I agree. Canadians are growing more obese — according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the proportion of obese people grew from just under 15% in 1978 to just under 25% in 2005. Recently, the Institute of Medicine, a non-profit U.S. group of expert medical professionals, released a fascinating document that suggests why we’re growing fatter. Between 1971 and 1974, the average American adult consumed 1,996 calories. Between 2005 and 2008, the average American’s calories per day was up to 2,234. And as a society, we’re also less physically active — for example, the Institute of Medicine says 4.1% of Americans walked to work in 1977, compared to 2.8% in 2008. The decrease is much worse when it comes to children—20.2% of kids walked to school in 1977 compared to just 12.5% in 2001.

The dual trends — eating more, combined with less physical activity — translate into a heavier society. And the Institute of Medicine attributes 20% of the weight increase between 1977 and 2007 to sugar-sweetened beverages.

Far ahead of us in the fight against obesity are such countries as France, which ratified at the beginning of this year a tax of about one euro-cent per container on sugar-sweetened and Aspartame-sweetened drinks. Hungary also instituted a so-called “fat tax” in 2011 that applied to soft drinks, among other foods.

While Canada isn’t a leader when it comes to such public health measures, it is launching some initiatives. Last September, the Ontario government put into effect a new school food and beverage policy that limits sales of pop or any other sugary foods on school grounds. According to a spokesperson, the city of Toronto has a public health initiative, Rethink What You Drink, focused on kids aged nine to 12. The campaign aims to encourage children to make better beverage choices. Toronto Public Health also will be closely monitoring the results of Bloomberg’s big-beverage ban in New York City, the spokesperson says.

In Canada, we need to do more to make it difficult to access unhealthy foods, with taxes or school bans. We also need to make it easier to consume healthy foods — by increasing access to drinking water in public places, for example. Improved nutritional labelling is certain to help. We certainly need to address the link between obesity and poverty by making more affordable healthy foods available in disadvantaged communities.

I’m also intrigued by the prospect of borrowing ideas from the environmental movement. For example, I’m fascinated by the recent elimination of plastic bags at grocers. It’s become commonplace, today, for us to bring our own tote bags to the grocery store. Will we ever bring our own reusable containers when we purchase unhealthy beverages, so that we’ll define portion sizes for ourselves, rather than allowing corporate interests to do it for us? Perhaps Canada could take the lead on this front — or, at least, begin to follow the lead of Michael Bloomberg. From a health point of view, moderation always wins over excess.

—Dr. James Aw is the medical director of the Medcan Clinic, a leading private health clinic in Toronto. For more information, visit medcan.com.

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1 Comment

  1. Kimberley Cloughley

    It is absolutely no wonder that our population is getting “fatter”. We do nothing to support each other to maintain our health. We close schools forcing kids to take busses or get rides. We make it difficult to have a parent stay at home with kids during critical times of child rearing and growth. We continue to divide our society driving a wedge between the rich and poor. We give large corporations breaks to maintain huge profits while those who really need the help and break get very little and continue to struggle. Do we really wonder why our society is headed down the path of obesity? Is adding a tax to sugary drinks really the answer? Isn’t that like bringing a cup of water to a forest fire? The answer to the problem doesn’t lie in adding more taxes and hurting the people who drink soda in a respobsible way. The problem is much deeper and will take much more than a silly tax to alleviate.

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