Picture this. The nation’s children are drinking on average what amounts to a bathtub full of sugary beverages every year. That’s 30 gallons of soda, sports drinks and probably the biggest healthy drink fraud of all, fruit juice.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association painted this vivid visual Monday as they announced what is probably the most aggressive proposition ever by national health organizations to curb consumption of the sugary drinks that are wreaking havoc on children’s health.
The groups suggested an excise tax on such drinks, making water and milk the default beverages on children’s menus and in vending machines, requiring hospitals to discourage purchases of unhealthy beverages and making sure nutritional information is visible on restaurant menus and advertisements.
They also want the federal and state governments to push to limit the marketing of these drinks to children and teens and for federal nutrition programs to discourage sugary drinks. For instance, low-income families can currently buy soda with their SNAP benefits.
We welcome the call of action from the medical doctors who see firsthand every day the health impact of such drinks and whose stance can help bolster the push to rein in the forceful marketing tactics used by the beverage industry.
These drinks amount to nothing but empty calories with little or no nutritional value, and beverage companies spend millions — $866 million in 2013 — to get kids hooked no them. Dietary guidelines recommend that children and teens consume fewer than 10 percent of calories from added sugars, but they consume about 17 percent, and nearly half of that comes from drinks. They are getting much more when you factor in added sugar from food. Most teenagers see at least one soda advertisement a day, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
What's worse, studies have shown these drinks are pushed more heavily in Latino and African American communities. In some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fruit or vegetable, but plenty of corner stores line their shelves with cheap bottles of soda, which are often less expensive than a bottle of water. High concentrations of fast food joints in these same neighborhoods serve up super-sized sodas with their meals.
It is only setting children up for a lifetime of health failures that include dental problems, heart disease and obesity, among other issues. The agencies said Monday that teens who drink more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars are more likely to have abnormal cholesterol levels, including higher "bad" LDL cholesterol and lower heart-protective HDL cholesterol. Obesity now affects 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Monday’s announcement marks the first time the two groups have proposed excise taxes, which proved successful in some states, including reducing the amount of sugary beverages bought in both Berkeley, Calif., and Philadelphia. States have also used the money to fund education programs.
Maryland has also seen some small victories. There is no excise tax in the state, but the group Sugar Free Kids has seen some local success in securing healthier options in vending machines in several counties. In Baltimore, healthy drinks are now the default choice in kids meals.
Still, regulating sugary drinks usually ignites controversy, and any effort is likely to face intense pushback and lobbying from the beverage industry. The Beverage Association sued the city of San Francisco for violating its First Amendment rights for requiring labels that warn of the health consequences of drinking sodas and other beverages. In Baltimore, such legislation faced intense lobbying from retailers concerned about costs. It never made it out of the City Council. The beverage trade group also sued the city of Philadelphia over its soda tax. Lastly, a proposal in 2012 by former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to limit the sales of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces died in New York State Court of Appeals, which ruled the city overstepped its regulatory bounds.
For those who argue that the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling people what to eat, we say that it is indeed their job to protect the public health of the country’s citizens.
We hope the endorsement by the health groups gives more ammunition to those who care about kids’ health. The groups are modeling their effort after the previous public health assault on the tobacco industry, which put up similar defenses when health groups strived to reduce tobacco use among kids. The health community kept on fighting, and those efforts eventually paid off.