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Sugary drinks: a sickeningly sweet issue

Childhood obesity in the United States is a public health crisis of epidemic proportions, and it is time we speak honestly about the causes and get serious about the solutions.

The current generation is the first in history in which children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents; the first generation in history in which children are developing diseases previously only seen in adults, like type 2 (formerly known as adult onset) diabetes and early heart disease.

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We must protect the health of our citizens and provide them with the information they need to make the best decisions for their health and the health of their families. The Baltimore City Health Department is leading the charge against childhood obesity and tackling this by supporting proposed City Council legislation to require warning labels in any establishment that sells sugary drinks, which are a leading contributor to the obesity epidemic.

Here in Baltimore, one in three high school children are obese or overweight. A major contributor to this epidemic is the increased consumption of sugary drinks. Studies show that sugary drinks promote weight gain and are the primary sources of added sugar and calories in children's diets. One 20-ounce soda has 65 grams of sugar, which is more than the daily maximum of 50 grams recommended by the FDA.

Drinking just one sugary drink a day — something that one in four Baltimore children do — increases a child's odds of becoming obese by 60 percent.

The frame of personal responsibility is often used by those opposed to the government getting involved in the battle against obesity through public health education and regulation — the most prominent opponents being the beverage industry. However, the job of these corporations is to bolster the bottom line for their shareholders (i.e. increase sales of sodas), so of course they shift the blame onto the consumer. Food companies use the same marketing principles as the tobacco industry did: Market to youth. Youth are more vulnerable to advertising, and if you can get people hooked when they are children, they will be lifelong customers. When the industry is using marketing techniques on children that exploit their inability to discern an advertisement's persuasive intent and are aimed at getting them hooked, how can we expect them to exercise personal responsibility as an adult?

Furthermore, beverage companies disproportionately market their sugary drinks to low-income communities that are already hardest hit by health disparities and have the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease. The consumption of sugary drinks is increasing rampant inequities, putting our most vulnerable children on the fast track toward poor health and shortened life spans.

Many parents are not aware of the health risks associated with sugary drinks and would make different choices if they had more information. Research has shown that parents are less likely to buy their children a sugary drink with a warning label, when compared to a normal calorie label. There are warning labels on cigarettes and alcohol for this reason; consumers must have all the facts to make informed choices for themselves and their families.

Just like the tobacco industry did for decades, the beverage industry denies that sugary drinks are a leading contributor to complex conditions like obesity or diabetes. They claim that warning labels unfairly single out sugary drinks when there are so many other diet and lifestyle factors that contribute to obesity. Our public policy must be driven by research, and the science is clear: Sugary drinks are a leading contributor to obesity and diabetes. Even among people with a healthy weight, drinking one sugary drink a day increases the risk of developing diabetes by 13 percent.

We need to support efforts to require warning labels on all sugary drink advertisements, restaurant menus and at point of sale in stores that sell sugary drinks now.

Despite the fact that this bill introduced at the beginning of this year was met with wide support of communities and scientists, the City Council has yet to bring it up for any discussion.

Children and their parents deserve to know the facts about all threats to their health. We cannot wait until another generation grows up with poor health and preventable disease.

The time is right for bold action.

Jake Weinfeld is the chief operating officer for MERIT, a non-profit that empowers under-represented high school students to become health care change agents. His email is jake.weinfeld@meritbaltimore.org.

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