Sports drink

Sports drink (Monica Eng)

The soda wars (aka sugar sweetened beverage debates) are erupting in so many different directions, it's hard to know where to start in our update. So we'll give you little sips of them all.

First: Today the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity released a report on the effects of a potential sugar sweetened beverage tax in Illinois. Commissioned by the Cook County Department of Public Health,  the report suggests:

"A one cent [per ounce] sugar sweetened beverage tax would save more than $1.5 billion in health care spending over the next decade and reduce obesity-related health care spending in the state's Medicaid program," according to Frank Chaloupka, Ph.D., lead author of the report and distinguished professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We could expect to see the greatest declines in consumption among youth because they consume more sugar-loaded beverages."

Second: This morning Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity released a new study looking at marketing of sugar sweetened beverages to young people. The study concluded that that despite pledges to reduce such marketing, companies still actively target youths, especially black and Hispanic youngsters when marketing soda, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks.

“Beverage companies have pledged to improve child-directed advertising,” said lead researcher Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center. “But we are not seeing a true decrease in marketing exposure. Instead companies have shifted from traditional media to newer forms that engage youth through rewards for purchasing sugary drinks, community events, cause-related marketing, promotions, product placements, social media, and smartphones."

Industry group, the American Beverage Association responded by calling the report: "a blatant attempt to undermine a responsible industry’s products and practices at the unfortunate expense of America’s youth – who would be better served with comprehensive studies and programs as part of a broader effort to combat childhood obesity."

Third: In more big thinking about sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) and public policy, Emory University scientists published a new report in the November issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition  that questions the quality of the science that links SSBs with obesity. This study, which was partially funded by Coca-Cola, was challenged in the same issue of the journal by Harvard University scientists who contend that the assessment framework used by the Emory scientists was inappropriate for about half of the studies they looked at, leading to erroneous conclusions. You can read the specifics here in a nice FoodNavigatorUSA story about the research.

So why are all of these academics so concerned with soda, taxes and obesity? Public health is the given reason, but Washington is also gearing up to debate the 2012 Farm Bill that will determine funding for most of our nation's agricultural and feeding programs, including food stamps.

Proposals to improve health by banning soda purchases with food stamps have been bouncing round state legislatures for a few years, but beverage lobbyists and hunger groups have consistently opposed them.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg looked like he was getting close to a two year pilot study that would examine the health impact of restricting soda from food stamp purchases, but this summer the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned him down.

This led Yale University's Kelly Brownell and colleague David Ludwig to write in the Journal of the American Medical Association that:

"The government purchases millions of servings of sugar-sweetened beverages for [food stamp] participants each day. This practice arguably erodes diet quality and promotes chronic illness among individuals who are at increased risk of obesity-related disease because of limited financial resources. Moreover, the costs of treating chronic illness associated with increased sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in this population will fall primarily to taxpayers."

As the soda (SSB) wars continue to fizz against the backdrop of rising healthcare costs and 2012 farm bill cuts, soda discussions may very bubble up well beyond these simple academic questions.