September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. As it comes to a close, let's take a look at how the beverage industry, one of the single most significant contributors to childhood obesity, addressed the issue during this time of reflection and learning.

The industry’s spin machine trade group, the American Beverage Association (ABA), kicked the month off with a blog celebrating the industry’s “long commitment to being a part of the solution to childhood obesity.” The post highlighted their attempt to beat inevitable regulations voluntary decision to cut 90 percent of drink calories from schools.

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They also pointed to their partnership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the Childhood Obesity Prevention Awards, through which they are offering a bunch of money to policy makers for obesity prevention projects. That is, it’s a bunch of money to the policy makers--$445,000 for six grants in 2014. A pittance compared to the hundreds of millions spent on advertising, but a steal for the beverage industry--a small price for an attractive distraction. The six winners of this year’s grants were cities that for some reason did not address one of the most significant drivers of childhood obesity: sugary beverages.

And then, last week, the beverage industry announced “the single-largest effort by an industry to fight childhood obesity” by transforming the beverage landscape in America. They will do this by reducing beverage calories consumed per person by 20 percent by the year 2025.


Just four days before that press release, the ABA blogged that “it’s all too common an occurrence these days to hear exaggerated reports about sugar-sweetened beverages being a unique contributor to obesity.” The post brags: “Sugary beverages only make up six-percent of the calories in the average American’s diet.”

A couple of things: First, a six-percent increase to a 2,000 calorie diet from added sugars would be more than enough to explain an annual weight gain of 12 pounds. The ABA probably shouldn’t be boasting about that. But second, and more importantly, why on earth would an industry voluntarily gut its most profitable product line, in order to help solve a problem it claims its products don’t even cause? If any shareholders are reading this, I’d rethink your investment.

The answer lies in the profitability of sugary beverages. It’s decreasing. As Roberto Ferdman reported in his brilliantly titled Washington Post column, Coke and Pepsi Concede That Maybe Soda Is Bad For You, “soda consumption has been declining in the United States for over a decade.” As much grief as I give them (they’re only loose with the facts because the truth will cost them money), the folks in the beverage industry are no dummies. They saw the trend, and with this announcement, they can now spend the next ten Childhood Obesity Awareness Months telling everyone about that time that they took credit for something that was happening anyway stopped selling so much sugar to kids.

Whoever gets credit for the decrease, it is indeed a good thing. But it’s not enough to mitigate serious health consequences for millions of people and billions in health costs. And that brings us to Big Soda’s last party favor in the celebration for childhood obesity awareness: a multi-million dollar campaign to crush a couple of California ballot measures aimed at increasing the price of sugary beverages.

Berkeley and San Francisco both have SSB tax measures on the ballot. This campaign has already been thoroughly covered by Politico, Nancy Huehnergarth, Dana Woldow, and others, but the bottom line is this: there is plenty of evidence that a volumetric tax on sugary beverages could help reduce consumption, improve health and raise revenue for public health programming. Working straight out of the tobacco industry’s playbook, the beverage industry has already spent over $2 million to fight the measures in California, and will certainly spend more before the November election.

Advocate Maureen Erwin in front of an industry-funded rally. Photo courtesy Yes on E-ChooseHealth SF

People who actually study these things--medical, public health, and public policy professionals--have recommended a number of evidence-based strategies to meaningfully reduce sugary beverage consumption and improve health. Strategies like reducing marketing of sugary beverages to children, enacting size limits on sugary drinks, and taxing sugary beverages to more accurately represent their cost to society.

These efforts are all aggressively being undermined by the beverage industry, because the last thing the industry wants is for people to actually stop drinking its most profitable products. As childhood obesity awareness month ends, and we read headlines about the beverage industry’s efforts to combat childhood obesity, let’s not forget how we got into this situation in the first place.

The evidence shows that cheap, large, sugary drinks, heavily marketed to young people, have significantly contributed to childhood obesity and diabetes. Is the industry addressing these issues? Not really. It’s simply changing the subject, and saying:

“You’re welcome.”