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Giving science a seat at the table

The Point-By-Point Response To Beverage Industry Script That Was Removed From A News Station Website

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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:

http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/84/2/274.long

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”:

http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001578

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:

http://civileats.com/2014/01/28/food-industry-nutrition-curriculum-tells-kids-outrun-your-fork/

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:

http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=12250

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 na?ve, 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.

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

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