Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the size of sugary soft drinks has initiated an extremely important public debate. Some of the participants — primarily officials of and lobbyists for the soft drink industry — would have us believe the initiative is an attack on our freedom, a heavy handed response that would deny consumers of their rights. Recent polls suggest a small majority of the public oppose the Mayor’s proposal too.
The reality though is that the Mayor’s proposal is a sound and commendable response to a crisis threatening our public health and safety.
This proposal is no different than the smoking and trans fats bans and calorie posting requirements that all originally faced public opposition, to varying degrees. But, with time,opposition turned to support and by 2011 a Quinnipiac University Poll found that 85 percent of New Yorkers supported the smoking ban and 79 percent supported the calorie-posting law. There is every reason to expect the same support will follow with the limit on sugary soft drinks, and New Yorkers will be healthier for it.
All across the world, but particularly here in America, the obesity epidemic is destroying lives and driving up health care costs. Indeed, more than one-third of all Americans are obese; the estimated annual costs of the epidemic in our country exceed $150 billion.
It is well documented that sugar-laden soft drinks contribute more calories and added sugars to our diets than any other food or beverage, and that excess added sugars can cause obesity. While excessive sugar consumption and obesity are most closely associated with an increased risk of Type II diabetes, they can also cause or exacerbate a host of other health problems, including asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer.
As President and CEO of Community Healthcare Network, I oversee 13 federally qualified health centers, providing medical services to more than 75,000 individuals every year.
In the last few years, we at CHN have seen a dramatic increase in the incidence of diabetes, and in fact a recent study by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows that the prevalence of diabetes among adults more than doubled between1993 and 2004, and today, more than 700,000 New Yorkers have diabetes.
This increase coincides with a surge in the consumption of sugary soft drinks, and with the increasing popularity of “Super-Sized” soft drinks. These extra large drinks contain an inordinate and extremely unhealthy amount of sugar – the largest have more than 180 grams!! Keep in mind that the American Heart Association issued a report last year recommending that women consume no more than 24 grams of sugar daily, and men no more than 36 grams. Even a single 12 ounce can of soda contains more sugar (39 grams) than those recommended amounts.
Despite the studies and irrefutable evidence, beverage companies — which have strongly opposed the Mayor’s public health initiative — continue to market their products aggressively to children and teens. In fact, these companies spend more on marketing sugary beverages to children and adolescents than they do on any other food category. Further, marketing for sugary drinks is targeted disproportionately more often to minority and low-income youth who consume more of these products and are at higher risk of obesity and related diseases.
It is my hope that the Mayor’s initiative will spur further action, including a report on sugary drinks from the Surgeon General. A coalition of more than 100 health organizations has called on the Surgeon General to conduct a report –organizations including the American Medical Association, American Diabetes Association, American Health Association, American Dental Association and American Academy of Pediatrics.
I applaud the Mayor for shining a light on the harmful effects of sugary drinks, and initiating the debate. Establishing size limits for sugary beverages is good public health policy.