Is Big Soda as Bad as Big Tobacco?

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Over at TIME’s new “Ideas” blog, obesity and food policy expert Kelly Brownell makes the case for a soda tax: simply put, it’s good for the country’s waistline and its bottom line.

Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), including sodas and sports drinks, are the “single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet, and the research linking SSB intake with obesity and diabetes is stronger than for any other food or beverage category. The average American consumes 50 gallons of SSBs per year,” Brownell writes.

Adding a penny-per-ounce tax on any drink with added sugar could not only reduce obesity and related health-care costs, but could also generate up to $150 billion in revenue in 10 years.

So, what’s the problem? The soda industry. Brownell says Big Soda is playing dirty, the same way Big Tobacco did a half-century ago when it came under fire for harming Americans’ health. Nearly 20 states and cities are now considering soda taxes, and a long list of international health organizations have called for reduced soda consumption, but the beverage industry, dominated by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, and represented by the American Beverage Association, has been fighting this public health initiative using some familiar tactics. Brownell writes:

The beverage industry argues that such taxes are “discriminatory” in singling out one category of food, that taxes would not work, and that government should not tell people what to eat. The tobacco industry said taxes would not work (they did work — tremendously well) and that government should stay out of people’s choice to smoke.

Similar to tobacco companies, the soda industry has created a front group, Americans Against Food Taxes, to run antitax campaigns (a Super Bowl ad, for example). The name of the group implies a patriotic, grass roots movement, not a highly financed entity initiated and organized by industry. The tobacco industry paid scientists who did research disputing links between smoking and lung cancer, the addictive nature of nicotine, and the dangers of secondhand smoke. The soda industry funds scientists who reliably produce research showing no link between SSB consumption and health. The tobacco industry bought favor from community and national organizations by giving large donations. In an ironic twist, Coca Cola and PepsiCo are corporate sponsors of the American Dietetic Association.

There are countless reasons to cut sugary beverages out of your diet. In case you need another, consider the new study published online Monday by the journal Injury Prevention, which found that teens who drank five cans of sugary soda a week were significantly more likely to have been violent with peers, siblings and romantic partners, and more likely to have carried a weapon. The researchers found that the more soda kids drank, the more aggressive they tended to be, and that the association between soda drinking and violence was similar in magnitude to that between tobacco or alcohol and violence.

It wasn’t clear whether soda caused aggression, or whether aggressive kids tended to drink more soda, but either way, reducing teens’ intake of sugary, high-calorie, caffeinated drinks can’t be a bad thing.

Read more at TIME Ideas.

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