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A Point-By-Point Response To The Beverage Industry Script

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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UPDATE, Feb 3, 8:35 pm: As mysteriously as the comment was removed, after this blogpost was published the comment went back up. Still no word as to why it was removed in the first place.

On January 27th, San Francisco news station KGO-TV ran a news story about a possible tax on sugary beverages. As expected, a few comments accompanied the story dismissing the proposed tax as ineffective and over-reaching.

I tend to ignore a lot of the rubbish that populates webpage comment sections. However, in this case, the commenters nicely summed up the standard beverage industry lines: Soda is not responsible for obesity, a soda tax will not reduce obesity, and personal responsibility is the key to health, not government interference.

Also, one of the commenters (Maureen from the American Beverage Association), invoked “science” to support her stance that focusing on soda to improve health is misguided. I felt that another voice needed to be heard in this conversation, one that provided insight about what research actually tells us about why targeting soda makes a lot of sense from a public health perspective.

I posted a comment that responded point-by-point to the standard beverage industry script. That comment was removed from the website the next day, while the pro-industry comments remained. KGO-TV did not respond to a phone call or email inquiring why that comment had been removed.

I have decided to post my comment on this blog, slightly edited for the sake of readability. First are the pro-industry comments to which mine was posted in reply. I hope this will be useful for anyone else who wants to respond to what will be the same arguments you will hear time and time again from the beverage industry, as more municipalities and governments explore polices that begin to address the very real problem of soda consumption.

First, the pro-industry comments:








My response:

Aaand cue the propaganda machine: Don’t let Maureen from the American Beverage Association fool you: Public health and nutrition researchers agree that sugared beverages have no place in a healthy diet. Well-funded representatives from the beverage industry will tell you that it doesn’t make sense to target one single source of calories. One of the beverage industry supporters commented:

“Get to the real problem, don’t pick on one food item – show your intelligence – not tunnel vision”

Let’s talk about tunnel vision for a moment. If beverage industry supporters would look around, they might notice that a sweetened beverage tax is not the ONLY tactic that public health promoters are using to reduce health burdens. Among many, many other things, public health encourages physical activity, improves parks, discourages junk food sold in schools, discourages food marketing aimed at children, provides increased access to fruits and vegetables, etc. etc. This soda tax campaign is one of many tools to improve health—one part of the very holistic approach that Maureen recommends.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Intelligence: Targeting sugary beverages is one of the most intelligent and strategic ways to improve Americans’ health. If we are going to begin to reduce the burden of disease that comes from poor diets, the best place to start is reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. They are the NUMBER-ONE contributor of added sugar to the American diet, and they serve ZERO nutritive purpose. Here is just one of many reviews that examines the evidence about sugared beverages contribution to weight gain and obesity:

You will  hear about some studies that do not find that sugary beverage consumption is linked to weight gain and obesity. Chances are, those studies were funded by the beverage industry. A recent review found that studies that were funded by the beverage industry were significantly more likely to produce results in the beverage industry’s favor. Shocking. Here’s a link to the review, which concluded: “The best large randomized control trials support a direct association between SSB consumption and obesity”:

You will also hear from the beverage industry that people simply need to exercise more, and that the industry is doing a number of things to encourage this, like supporting Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. People should indeed be regularly physically active, but again, research indicates that focusing solely on exercise will not lead to weight-loss in a meaningful way. Most experts posit that diet is responsible for 70-80 percent of our weight, and exercise only 20-30 percent, as described in the commentary at this link:

You will hear again, as you did above, about the failure of the Arkansas beverage tax to reduce obesity. That tax was never meant to reduce obesity, only to raise revenue (which it did). The arguments from the beverage industry that use the Arkansas example are thoroughly debunked here:

Finally, let’s talk about personal responsibility. John Peter Koss (in the beverage business for 54 years) said something you will hear many other beverage industry representatives say: “Resulting problems are not food items themselves – it is people. Lack of discipline, lack of parental control, lack of common sense, lack of diet sense, and lack of self-respect.”

Ignoring Koss’s insult to his own customers (juxtapose “drinking Coca-cola makes you happy” with “drinking Coca-cola shows lack of discipline, self-respect, common sense, etc.”), let’s examine the role personal responsibility plays in health behaviors:

A majority of Americans struggle with their weight. This did not used to be the case. In 1985, fewer than 15% of Americans were obese. That number has roughly doubled, give or take, depending on which state you’re looking at. What has changed? Have people become inherently less personally responsible over the last few decades?

A vocal contingent will say “Yes! The obesity problem is just a sign of our social and moral decay! ” But that’s not really helpful and doesn’t get us any closer to a solution to the very real problems of poor diet and lack of physical activity. What is the solution to this decrease in personal responsibility? Be better? Shape up? Be more responsible? We have been telling people for the past thirty years to eat less and move more, but people generally are moving less and eating more. In cases where the trends have leveled off, they have done so negligibly. Simply saying people need to make better decisions ignores what we know about how people make decisions.

There’s plenty of science that can help explain why it is perfectly normal for an individual to choose to not move very much, and to eat lots of sugary and fatty foods. The food and beverage industry is well aware of this science, and even funds some of it.

So what has changed? Portion sizes, ubiquitous marketing, reformulation of food products to be irresistible… The food and beverage industry is pouring billions into getting more of us to eat more, more often. It is their mandate from their shareholders, and they should not be expected to do anything differently. However, for representatives from the beverage industry to ignore the billions of dollars spent specifically to undermine consumers’ self control, and then to turn around and blame consumers for being “irresponsible,” is at best naïve, or more likely, manipulative and disingenuous.

Personal responsibility is certainly an important component of making healthy decisions. But relying only on individual decisions without addressing the environment in which those decisions are made will change nothing. One of the best, responsible, science-based decisions voters can make, is to hold the beverage industry responsible, and to make it harder for the industry to continue to be the number-one source of diabetes-causing sugar in Americans’ diets.

Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Minneapolis-based freelance health and science writer and digital media producer. He is interested in the challenges of public health in a consumer society. He is also a co-founder and director of, an organization inviting health and fitness professionals to help reform the industry from within. He also likes sandwiches and climbing on things. You can find more of his work at his website, Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. Spironis 4:41 pm 02/3/2014

    Make everything pleasurable lawful, then stand back absent comment. Reality works best – certainly most economically – when it is a self-cleaning toilet. Tell us which “War on” was not death on wheels to innocents.
    The difference is that had somebody to mourn him.

    Link to this
  2. 2. JeffryGerberMD 5:06 pm 02/3/2014

    I agree there is more to consider beyond sugar sweetened beverages when it comes to our health. It is however interesting to read the comments from the beverage industry supporters: all about image and damage control. Jeffry Gerber, MD – I also added these comments at the original story at the ABC affiliate site:

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  3. 3. JesseCPBShaw 10:33 am 02/4/2014

    Q: What do elite Ironman racers drink?
    A: Flat Coke.

    Context is everything.

    Q: Does HFCS contribute to the mounting obesity problem?
    A: Yes.

    Q: Is avoiding HFCS hard?
    A: Yes. It is used in nearly all processed foods.

    The inclusion of HFCS artificially inflates the number of calories ingested per meal.

    The alternatives to an HFCS ban or max threshold are:
    1. Eat less
    2. Workout more

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bertelo 7:24 am 02/5/2014

    I like the article and you bring up good points as dose the beverage industry and the comments. I think a point that is missed is from your point about the rise since 1985. You ask if people have become less responsable as to suggest that we havent and it is the drinks that are at fault. But if one were to look at the lifestyle of the typical person in from the to now it is very diffrent. The number of obese people raises 15%, but what about time spent on the couch watching TV, time on the computer? How much of the labor force has transitioned from jobs that were physical (even if minorly) to being completely sedetary? What about the amount of time children were to go outside and play compaired to today? All these contribute to the problem as well.

    My personal oppinion is the issue with taxes like these simply dont net the result we intend. Tabacco is taxed to no end but I dont think it is what has led to changes in the public habit, I believe that has more to do with education and social stigmas.

    Personaly I would like seeing regulation on high fructos corn syrup. This would provide the intended result with sodas rising in price but from the use of more expensive sugars, but not just in sodas but accross the board.

    An issue we face is the amount of money currently being spent on food is more then half what we spent 40 years ago. And our society eats our much more. We have a tipping point where US culture needs to decide what it wants quality or quantity. Currently it seems like quantity. I think we need to look more on to our political leaders to regulate what we allow manufacturers to use.

    Personaly I love soda, as a chef I try to learn how to make everything myself and my rootbeer has 8 ingredients (yup one is some sticks), but I know to limit myself and I also drink a gallon or more water a day. I do think the issue of personal responsability is true to the topic as well.

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  5. 5. 10:16 am 02/5/2014

    Hi Bertelo,

    Thanks for joining the conversation. You raised some legitimate questions and I’d like to respond to them.

    First, absolutely, an increasingly sedentary population is one of many things that contributes to poor health. All of the problems you mentioned are indeed being addressed by public health advocates. I don’t think anyone working for a reduction in soda consumption would disagree with that.

    Second, you’re welcome to your opinion, but perhaps you would be interested in changing it after learning that taxing tobacco has in fact led to dramatic changes in the public habit. Reduction in smoking is one of public health’s greatest successes, and taxation was one of the most effective tools to that end. Here’s one of many studies that examines this effect:

    Also, you bring up education. Certainly education is important and needs to continue, but the budgets of public health departments and nonprofit organizations pale in comparison to the billions of dollars spent by food companies on encouraging consumption. Taxing sodas can have a double effect in that it would discourage consumption, while the funds generated would go towards health initiatives like encouraging better diet and physical activity.

    Regulating high fructose corn syrup is an interesting idea, and I haven’t looked much into that strategy. My suspicion is that because HFCS appears in so many foods that also contain useful nutrients that it would be VERY hard to get something like that passed. Because sodas offer zero nutrition, and are the number one source of added sugar in our diets, it makes a lot more strategic sense to focus on them.

    I enjoy a cold root beer myself every once and a while, and If I was going to enjoy that treat, I’d happily pay twice what most people pay for a can of pop, especially if it was a home made batch from someone like you (sticks and all). I think chefs like yourself are important in helping our culture shift towards one that values quality of food over quantity. I hope you’ll continue to take that role seriously, and again, thanks for commenting and bringing up some great points.


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  6. 6. hb 9:27 pm 02/5/2014

    I agree with the author’s opinion on soft drinks; this isn’t what I am writing about. My comment concerns the author’s following remark:

    “The food and beverage industry is pouring billions into getting more of us to eat more, more often. It is their mandate from their shareholders, and they should not be expected to do anything differently”.

    Really? Where does this idea come from that shareholders can and should mandate corporate decisions? How can it be OK for corporations to do anything, no matter how unethical or criminal, as long as shareholders benefit financially. Accepting this crazy belief leads to the paradoxical conclusion that it is perfectly fine for corporations to sicken shareholders and their families with their unhealthy junk, as long as they make them money.

    If we don’t want corporations to run roughshod over us, we need to reject the preposterous notion that the stock market trumps everything else.

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  7. 7. 10:31 pm 02/5/2014

    hb: How can that be ok indeed? Not sure if you’re interpreting the passage you’re referencing as I intended it.

    Should we EXPECT food companies to do anything differently? No, because if we expected something different, we would be naive and disappointed. Under the way the system currently works, as you said, the health of the people who consume these products is trumped by the bottom line. SHOULD the system work that way?

    Well now you’re asking the right question…

    Link to this
  8. 8. oldfarmermac 10:42 am 02/6/2014

    However, for representatives from the beverage industry to ignore the billions of dollars spent specifically to undermine consumers’ self control, and then to turn around and blame consumers for being “irresponsible,” is at best naïve, or more likely, manipulative and disingenuous.

    I will go a little farther and translate this totally true remark on your part into plain English a bit more in the line of the way we think of such people once we realize why they are saying such things.

    They are scumbag employees of the mass peddlers of a what is essentially a legal,lethal drug that is legally marketed to kids thru advertisements because of an understandable failure on the part of the founding fathers of this country.

    That failure was their inability to foresee the rise of the mass media and the immortal and nearly godlike corporations that control most business activity these days. There can be no question that they would have excluded advertisements of such products as cigarettes and soft drinks from the protection of the principle of free speech had they foreseen such abominations as the Marlboro man and known about the connection between lung cancer and smoking.

    Paying actors and tv and radio broadcasters by the tens of millions of dollars to convince us that soft drinks are wonderful and harmless on the one hand and then denying that they are encouraging us to drink them by spending a few thousand on messages about making responsible choices is within the letter of the law.

    It shouldn’t be but that is the way it is and changing that will take another decade or longer at best.

    But the public health profession got rid of Joe Camel and the Marlboro man and barring bad luck it will eventually get rid of ads for SSB’s as well.

    Their forked tongue words will eventually bite these spokes people on the axx with a vengeance. They will realize sooner or later – if they have enough brains to realize it- that the sugar industry has knocked a few decades off of the lives of some of their friends and relatives, and some of them as well.

    They actors will probably pay out more than they made for being in the ads in the form of taxes spent on looking after the millions of victims of the ssb industry.

    One of my best friends died recently of cancer.

    He was a very decent guy taken all around and very well educated but he basically believed that this world should be a “buyer beware ” place when it comes to alcohol, tobacco, diet, and other such issues because of the tendency of government powers to gradually grow in a cancer like fashion;he feared that this would eventually result in the loss of our economic and personal freedoms.

    And he smoked and he enjoyed it and he had a couple of six packs of beer every week and he enjoyed his beer too.

    He lived a little over a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer which is of course strongly correlated with both smoking and drinking and he realized that but at too late a date to do him any good.

    I will say this for him; he never blamed his cancer on anybody lying to him about the risks involved. He stuck to his principles even as his abdomen swelled up like a huge balloon and he was unable to even get to the bathroom without me and another guy helping him.

    He died drunk on morphine which is mercifully available in Virginia as needed to terminal cancer patients.

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