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Feb 14, 2010 11:04 AM

Is soda the new tobacco?


In their critics’ eyes, producers of sugar-sweetened drinks are acting a lot like the tobacco industry of old: marketing heavily to children, claiming their products are healthy or at worst benign, and lobbying to prevent change. The industry says there are critical differences: in moderate quantities soda isn’t harmful, nor is it addictive.

The problem is that at roughly 50 gallons per person per year, our consumption of soda, not to mention other sugar-sweetened beverages, is far from moderate, and appears to be an important factor in the rise in childhood obesity.

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  1. I'm sorry... This just seems to be the height of a ridiculous suggestion to me.

    People eat sugar in anything and everything: juice, pancakes, apple sauce, gosh just about every food I can think of...

    Maybe parents need to teach their children how to eat, rather than blaming the fact that some restaurants or whatever might serve pie, or cake or Swedish fish...

    People, even kids, need to take responsibility for themselves, more so because then they can learn good habits for when they grow up.

    1. Mark Bittman is getting in over his head as an erstwhile food policy-tax policy wonk.

      I am not much of a sugar soda drinker (I normally drink seltzer and iced tea without sugar); I don't like tons of sweet in my mouth. (I should just note that 50 gallons is 400 cups per year, about 9 oz a day.)

      I fully support getting soda out of schools. A soda tax, however, will not have much public support and pushing for it will therefore be a huge huge distraction in the realm of food policy progress. The science to support the tax is not univocal, and the proponents have very tellingly failed to consider unintended consequences: when policy makers consider only the nobility of their intentions and the possible good of their proposals, it's typically a huge warning flag that a proposal is ill-considered. I see too much religious energy and self-regard in the nutritional warriors for their (and our) own good.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Karl S

        I don't want to quibble about math, but by my calculation, 50 gallons per year would come out to 17.5 ounces per day (1 gal = 128 oz x 50= 6400 oz / 365 days = 17.53 oz per day.) Even that amount doesn't sound so excessive, but it is an average. I'm sure there are plenty of people drinking double & triple that amount.

        I find myself debating the wisdom & the validity of gov't or social pressure to try to change people's eating habits. As a 'Hound, I certainly enjoy food and am not above sinful indulgence from time to time. As I age, however, I become more concerned with the health repercussions (both personal and national health) of many of the foods found in the American diet.

        As Americans, we cherish the value of personal freedom, but if people do not respond to appeals to eat healthier, does gov't have the right, or the obligation, to take stronger measures? One can easily make a convincing argument that the measures taken against smoking were downright un-American, but I can't say I'm unhappy with the result.

        With so much commercial advertising pushing products of questionable value, should we not have a counter force advocating for the other side? Education alone does not seem to be effective, health insurance costs are escalating rapidly. I sure don't want big brother looking over my shoulder when I'm out at a restaurant celebrating good eating, but what balance can we strike to address public health while preserving individual freedom?

        1. re: Rmis32

          I take the math correction.

          But just because the current situation is not working does not meant the government will be an effective remedy worth the costs. The First Amendment offers a generous zone of freedom to corporate free speech (and, as we learned last month, we have a SCOTUS tha appears keen on enlarging, not narrowing, that zone); believe it or not, we have yet to fully litigate at the SCOTUS level how much regulation of corporate speech for public health can be tolerated under the First Amendment (let's just say I expect the barriers have been raised significantly).

          The moral of the story: just because we are unhappy doesn't mean there's a better result in reality-land out there.

          * * *

          Now, it would be great to get rid of a variety of agricultural subsidies. Let's start with sugar cane. But if we get rid of that, we thereby incentivize the use of corn sweeteners. OK, let's get rid of corn subsidies: good luck, because there are critical filibuster-votes on both sides of the Senatorial aisle from corn-producting states. OK, let's get rid of equal suffrage in the Senate. Well, we have to deal with the Guarantee Clause of the Constitiution. How about having cloture votes weighted by population? Only if we can get 67 senators to agree to a rule change. Ah yes, the joy of democracy instead of the Rule of Wise Men. No one ever said democracy was an exercise in wisdom.

          For that matter, for food policy advocates to ignore the political and scientific realities is an exercise in silliness, not wisdom. We don't need a Climategate to arise among food policy advocates.

          1. re: Karl S

            "Now, it would be great to get rid of a variety of agricultural subsidies. Let's start with sugar cane. But if we get rid of that, we thereby incentivize the use of corn sweeteners."

            Not true. The sugar subsidies are only part of the story, it's the import quotas that kill us on sugar. The world market price of sugar has been well below that of US sugar since the restrictions have been in place. ADM and the other corn growers actively lobbied for import limits on sugar in the early 80's and were then able to undercut prices spurring the shift by soda companies to corn syrup.

            So what we really need to do is allow for sugar to be priced at realistic world market levels.

            1. re: ferret

              I consider the import quota a subsidy, albeit indirect. The thing is, if you let the price of sugar rise to its natural level, buyers will simply switch to subsidized corn (as they have in large part already; this will further the impulse).

              1. re: Karl S

                You're missing the point, the restrictions on imports RAISE the price of sugar. Chicago, where I live, used to be a mecca of candy manufacturing. Slowly but surely many of the candymakers moved out, including Brach's, complaining of inflated sugar pricing. Brach's moved to Mexico where it was able to buy cheap world market sugar (yes, they saved on labor costs, too, but staying competetive in a world market where sugar candies could enter the US at lower price points was the key.

      2. Rmis32's remarks, quite innocently, I suspect, play right into the hands of those that think that they know better what is good for them than the people do: "Education alone does not seem to be effective, insurance costs are escalating rapidly. I don't want big brother looking over my shoulder when I'm out at a restaurant celebrating good eating, BUT what balance can we strike . . . ? [emphasis added] (In other words, a little bit of Big Brother looking over your shoulder would be okay!)

        To put it another way, since the people don't know what is good for themselves, those who do know what is good for the people, will force it on them. If we start taxing, or limiting, or banning sugar, will taxing, limiting, or banning fat be far behind? How about banning alcohol? Cigar smoking?

        Why not tax foods produced with fertilizers or pesticides to encourage farmers to farm without them? After all, the fertilizers and pesticides certainly put some percentage of people in the hospital, etc., etc., etc. There is no end to it, folks. It is what we lawyers call "the slippery slope" and what laymen call "the camel's nose under the wall of the tent." Banning something "a little bit" is like being a little bit pregnant. It just leads to more and more.

        The rationale used more and more is that behavior X increases health insurance costs. Since we all pay for health insurance costs directly or indirectly, the government, on behalf of the people who pay for these increased health insurance costs, has the right to regulate what we eat, what we drink, what we smoke . . . etc.

        Again, where does it stop? In George Orwell's "1984" the unhappy inhabitants of Oceania were required to exercise every morning for their own good, whether they wanted to or not.

        All of this seems a bit far afield from what I normally discuss on Chowhound's boards and yet, still relevant. Now, I'm going home to drink some champagne and have some pate d' foi gras on on a salty cracker before they ban the champagne for the sugar and alcohol in it, the pate for the fat in it, and the cracker for the salt in it. Saints preserve us!

        2 Replies
        1. re: gfr1111

          No one is talking about banning anything. I guess it's ok w/ you that every year health insurance gets costlier while benefits go down, because it's not a tax. It's a payment to a private insurer using the money to hire a bureaucrat whose function is to find a way to deny your claim.
          The reality is that gov't has always influenced the way we eat, Subsidies on corn, for instance, guarantee that we'll find high fructose corn syrup in so many of our food products. Perhaps stopping those subsidies, which come from our taxes, would be a better way to address the issue. How bad does the explosion in obesity & diabetes rates have to get before something is done to dis-incentivize bad eating habits?

          1. re: Rmis32

            It has to get bad enough to overcome filibusters on both sides of the aisle. We are nowhere near that point. Far far from it. Corn producers are a much huger industry than tobacco ever was.

        2. Soda does not lead to obesity.

          Overeating leads to obesity.

          Instead of taxing soda, why not just impose a fat tax?

          Let's say we want to get really Big Brother-ish, then cut out the middle man and impose a 1% tax for each point a person's BMI is above, say, 30.

          If your BMI is a 35 then the IRS collects an additional 5% on your AGI on top of your standard personal income tax rate.

          That's a national diet plan that would actually have some bite (pun intended).

          38 Replies
          1. re: ipsedixit

            "Soda does not lead to obesity.
            Overeating leads to obesity."

            True, and guns don't kill people, gaping holes thru vital organs kill people. The challenge is to find an effective policy to minimize the damage, without being overly oppressive.

            1. re: Rmis32

              And you have consider that you might well not ever find such a balance. Such a balance is not always available to be found.

              1. re: Rmis32

                Gaping holes in vital organs do not kill people. People kill people.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  "Gaping holes in vital organs do not kill people."

                  You seem to be having a hard time with causality. Or confusing "kill" with "murder."

                  Likewise, to say that soda does not cause obesity is untrue. Overeating on rare occasions (a couple times a year I pig out at a Chinese buffet) does not cause obesity either. But either overindulgence in food in general or specifically our culture's overindulgence in soft drinks certainly does cause obesity. We're talking 50 gallons per year per person of what is essentially sugar water. I can cite studies if you want, but it really shouldn't be necessary.

                  Whether or not it's the government's job, responsibility, or even their right to legislate nutrition (or gun safety) to its subjects is another matter, and it worries me that our government seems to feel so at ease acting in such a paternalistic manner. But to pretend there is no causal link or that some vague American Philosophy of Personal Responsibility trumps a known causal link is absurd.

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    The bottom line is that excess calories causes obesity. It matters little whether those calories come in the form of sodas or fruits. If you eat too many apples for example and never burn off those excess calories then you'll gain weight. Conversely, if all you were to consume were 2000 calories of sugar water or soda and burned it off in a day's activities then you won't gain excess weight.

                    Look, to say that soda causes obesity is sort of like saying eating fish causes mercury poisoning. That's sloppy science and rhetoric. Mercury causes mercury poisoning and on the case of eating fish it's the mercury in the fish that's causing the mercury poisoning.

                    While not endorsing this idea and not even saying it would pass 1st Amendment analysis, it would be more efficient to just impose a tax on soda advertisements than to impose a tax on soda.

                    But even that only addresses an indirect cause because while you can discourage the sale and consumption of soda, you haven't done anything to discourage people from overconsumption. Limit sodas and people who want to indulge their sweet tooth will simply find another outlet like donuts or candy or whatever else suits their fancy.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      My issue is that there is no need to discuss this as a hypothetical because Americans as a group DO overindulge in soda and DO suffer from high rates of obesity partially as a consequence (of course there are other causes of American obesity as well). That is empirically true while it is not empirically true to my knowledge that Americans are obese in part from eating too many apples.

                      There is nothing scientifically incorrect about saying that contaminated fish causes mercury poisoning. Or even that fish causes mercury poisoning, so long as it is understood that this is by means of mercury that contaminates some fish. Whether it would be more efficient and effective to decontaminate effected fish or just tell people not to eat fish (in general? by species? by species versus location?) is a viable subject for scientific examination.

                      Stating that it would be more efficient to tax soda advertisements strikes me as highly speculative and quite possible untrue.

                      "Limit sodas and people who want to indulge their sweet tooth will simply find another outlet like donuts or candy or whatever else suits their fancy." This is yet another statement that sounds plausible but is not well documented - it may in fact not be true at all. Another good area for scientific study.

                      It is often true that the cheapest and most convenient foods are also the least healthy. This would appear to lead to a less than healthy population, especially in those of meager means. Imposing a tax on some of these cheap unhealthy foods/drinks might well be an effective way to combat this phenomenon, which still is not to say that our government should. (Also of note - many of these cheap unhealthy foods enjoy enormous subsidies from our government.)

                      1. re: cowboyardee

                        Part of the problem with soda is that it is so convenient and readily available. So even if we were to make it more expensive by taxing it I'm not convinced that it will actually decrease demand in any meaningful manner.

                        While in the abstract the elasticity of demand for soda might be quite high (or steep) so that an incremental change in price will result in a disproportionately large change in demand, the mere fact that soda is so convenient a beverage changes that dynamic.

                        Let's say a 16oz can of soda is now $0.75 and you increase the price to 0.85 would that actually decrease demand and consumption on any meaningful manner? A person who wants a soda and walks up to a vending machine and sees that his old soda that used to be 0.75 is now 0.85 will probably just shrug and pony up the extra dime without so much as a second thought. And that dime is actually more than a 10% tax, which is considerably higher than what most are contemplating.

                        As far as I can surmise a soda tax will only enrich the coffers of government and not make much of a meaningful dent in our obesity rates.

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          All good points. In truth, I could not accurately predict what a tax on soda would do to its demand. Taxes on cigarettes (very large taxes, btw) have corresponded with lowered demand, but that was along with a campaign of public education, much negative propaganda, and laws limiting usage and sales.

                          At the same time, using money raised in taxes on soda directly for public health measures to fight obesity and malnutrition would at least appear to have benefits to public health, regardless of whether demand drops.

                          1. re: ipsedixit

                            Water is just as convenient and available.

                            1. re: fame da lupo

                              "Water is just as convenient and available"

                              Not in public buildings in the city of Toronto. They banned water vending machines because someone got their knickers in a knot over recycling the bottles.

                          2. re: cowboyardee

                            You have to repeal human nature, which is to choose the maximum amount of calories for the least amount of cost (both monetary and non-monetary). Thus it has ever been for the poor. Part of this is a class issue, and we pretend there are not class issues in the US. But the pact with the poor in this country is that we will ensure they are stuck without good benefits in low-paying jobs and with high costs to certain aspects of participating in the broader economy, in return for which we ensure that food remains relatively cheap (there are people who go hungry in this country, I hasten to add, even with this bargain). You decide to remove the cheap calories without addressing the other issues, you have a worse problem on your hands.

                            1. re: Karl S

                              So true indeed

                              A family of 4 living on 200k a year will hardly be impacted by a soda tax. While a family of 4 living on 35k will see a disproportionate impact on such a tax.

                              Regardless of whether such a tax will work or whether you agree with it? A soda tax like all flat taxes will result in a larger impact on the poor than the wealthy

                              1. re: Karl S

                                I actually agree with pretty much everything you said. While I am not always comfortable with how American government legislates health issues, I am downright appalled at how the US treats its poor. The matter is a bit tangential for a Chowhound discussion though, so I was trying not to wade into it.

                                1. re: Karl S

                                  People don't drink soda because it's cheap calories, they drink it because its sweet.

                              2. re: ipsedixit

                                the difference is water does not make a body feel full. the body reacts to soda as if it was calorieless water and does not abate hunger at all, while dumping all these excess calories into the system, unfelt

                          3. re: Rmis32

                            But the problem is the more people get told what to do, the more they accept being told what to do.

                            We have socialized medicine in Canada. When it was introduced in the 60's, opponents claimed that it would lead to oppressive government intrusion in our lives. "They'll make kids wear helmets on bikes!" the opponents said, and the proponents laughed at them, or accused them of scare-mongering. Of course, now they have to wear helmets, not only to ride bikes, but also full-face helmets with heavy screens to play hockey. The latter have saved a lot of head injuries and broken teeth, but because they're so heavy, there's been an increase in kids who suffered serious neck and back injuries because they weren't able to keep their heads up when they fell into the boards.

                            Now we have people in Toronto demanding a fat tax, demanding a ban on trans fats, and demanding a ban on soda machines on any public property (like, say, a hockey rink or a soccer field), all in the name of reducing sky rocketing health care costs.

                            And, of course, the mother of them all is the ban on tobacco smoking virtually anywhere in Toronto but the open street. You can't smoke near the entrance of buildings, all restaurant smoking was banned years ago (even in specially ventilated and isolated rooms), and now you can't even smoke on an outdoor bar patio, or in your car if kids are with you, all on the basis of spurious second hand smoke statistics, and again, reducing healthcare costs.

                            I'm sorry; every time, I trot out the "slippery slope" argument, people tell me it's a logical fallacy, and then I just keep looking at all the examples that abound. Look at flying - airport metal detectors were OK, X-raying baggage was OK, but nearly stripping to your underwear, and with the new scanners, actually virtually stripping you? Nothing on your lap - no books, no laptops - for the last two hours of your flight? When's it going to end?

                            That's why I'm opposed to soda bans and taxes, fat bans and taxes. What's next? Someone's going to decide that burgers are bad for you because of the charred meat, fat, and e coli scares, so they'll ban burgers to save on healthcare costs? Someone's going to decide dairy fats are bad for you, so it's only skim milk from now on, no full fat ice creams, and only skim milk cheese? (Ontario already forbids farmers from making raw milk cheeses, which people in next door Quebec seem to eat merrily with no problems.) Now, I know someone's going to respond and say "This is ridiculous. No one would ever go that far." Except they have in other areas, and are agitating in food. Toronto, one of the ten largest cities in North America, has the absolute WORST street food because our petty bureaucrats can't come to grips with the concept that safe and decent food can be served from a cart.

                            I think the old way is better - crime and punishment. You decide to eat until you're the size of whale - that's your crime, and your punishment is most likely an early death. Trying to save people from themselves by any method other than education just leads to oppression that inevitably gets more stringent as time goes by.

                            1. re: FrankD

                              Here here. Every time I've railed against something as being a slippery slope, people have laughed at me. Every time I'll take some absurd "what will be next?" stance and people will say, "that'll NEVER happen!" and yet it does.

                              1. re: FrankD

                                Thank you Frank. Finally, a voice of reason.

                                1. re: FrankD

                                  But the way it is now, everybody is paying for the whale-sized people, not just them.

                                  1. re: linguafood

                                    And they're paying for people who drive, people who like to skydive, people who smoke, people who get hit by busses, people who have bad genetics, people who .....

                                    1. re: jgg13

                                      People who work at banks, people who work at auto companies. people who text or phone while they drive, people who don't get auto insurance....

                                      Ah, people. So much moral hazard. If you want to get rid of moral hazard, get rid of yourself first.

                                  2. re: FrankD

                                    Frank D,
                                    You and I agree completely. See my February 15, 2010 rant above. And I have the same reaction from people as you do when I trot out the 'slippery slope" argument. They don't believe me and then, later, my "ridiculous" example comes to pass!

                                2. re: ipsedixit

                                  But then you have the problem that BMI is only truly useful on a macro scale (e.g. measuring the BMI of a population) and not so useful on an individual scale. If you wanted to go that route you'd have to do bodyfat %age by hydrostatic testing, and even that's not perfect.

                                  1. re: jgg13

                                    It ain't gonna happen. Don't sweat the details of an illusory proposal.

                                    1. re: Karl S

                                      I wouldn't be so sure. Taxing junk food wasn't going to happen 10 years ago and now it is being seriously considered. BMI surcharges have been seriously discussed in regards to health/life insurance (and I'd raise the same argument for that, regarding uselessness of BMI).

                                      1. re: jgg13

                                        BMI surcharges would boomerang, by discouraging obese people from buying insurance, and thus going naked and going to the ER all the time. A stupid idea inconsistent with the goal.

                                        1. re: Karl S

                                          The problem is that I don't believe for a second that ideas inconsistent with goals are out of the question. If anything, I tend to believe that such stupid ideas are more likely as those same stupid ideas always seem easier to implement and easier to rabble rouse for.

                                          1. re: jgg13

                                            Except that a lot of the rabble are overweight. A small mercy, perhaps?

                                        2. re: jgg13

                                          "Taxing junk food wasn't going to happen 10 years ago "

                                          Speak for yourself. It happened over ten years ago in Canada. Most food is untaxed, but things like chocolate bars, soda, and chips are. I'm not going to comment on restaurant meals, because all of those are taxed, whether it's McD's or the best steakhouse.

                                      2. re: jgg13

                                        True enough about BMI. I was only raising it to demonstrate a possible paradigm of how an obesity tax might look like - not saying that a solution using BMI would actually be practical.

                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          Unfortunately, any tax on being overweight is going to be administered via BMI :(

                                          1. re: jgg13

                                            It's not administrable. Just the fraud possibilities alone would involve Orwellian control measures to counter effectively. The costs in bureaucratic terms would eat up the erstwhile benefits.There would also be a constitutional challenge that it would exceed the scope of the amendment that allows for taxation of income (the federal government's taxation powers are not unlimited).

                                            1. re: Karl S

                                              Agree with you, Karl.

                                              I only used BMI as an example for purposes of discussion.

                                              Not only would BMI fail on a practical level, it would be inherently flawed in targeting ONLY those individuals that are truly obese. As a tool for ferreting out the obese it would be over inclusive. Many athletes -- who are bulky and muscular, but not obese or fat -- would have very high BMI numbers.

                                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                                Over the last 10 years I've gone from having an overweight BMI for good reasons to having an overweight BMI for bad reasons. Either way I'd get nailed by such a tax :)

                                                1. re: jgg13

                                                  Again just for purposes of discussion, one way to make BMI work is to have it as a rebuttable presumption.

                                                  In other words, if your BMI is considered too high, you can have the option to show that you are not obese or overweight, by using a combo of things like body fat %, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, etc.

                                                  Still not perfect (e.g., high blood pressure can be hereditary and not indicative of weight), but better than just relying exclusively on BMI.

                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                    Good points. Of course, one of the pushbacks given to the anti-BMI pushback I gave is that having a high BMI for the so-called good reasons is still not all that good. If you look at the camp that argues for low body weight, caloric restrictions, etc as the key to longevity - they view BMI for the musculature reasons as being nearly as bad as the obesity reasons. This gets in to the matter that I bring up in a post below this one, that 'healthy' implies different things to different people - to some it would be more ideal to be a robust person who might not live as long, while others would view overall longevity as the #1 motivator behind health.

                                                    1. re: jgg13

                                                      Totally agree.

                                                      But lets look at it this way. A person who is 5'10" and muscular and has a 35 BMI (a person with a football player physique for example) is still "healthier" than a person who is 5'10" and has the same 35 BMI but has 40% body fat.

                                                      If you ask the folks who are in the camp who believe in calorie-restrictive diets and ultra-low body weights, I think even they would agree that the muscular 35 BMI person is "healthier" than the fat 35 BMI person.

                                                      It's all relative I suppose.

                                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                                        The people I was thinking of wouldn't argue that the football player is overall better than captain cheetos, but their argument is that it is still overall unhealthy. This was in terms of using BMI to base health & life insurance costs btw.

                                    2. My issue with all of this is that 10-20 years ago, I kept hearing supporters of anti-tobacco initiatives talk about how it was all about second hand smoke. I'd say, "be careful of what you wish for, as they're coming for your food and such next." Bollocks, they'd say - that's personal, but what you do to others count!

                                      Now look at where we are