When I was a kid, I drank soda pop. But back then there were no 2-liter bottles or Double Big Gulps. Nor were there millions of vending machines and hundreds of thousands of fast-food outlets tempting us to plunk down a buck or two for a 20 oz. bottle…or a 40 oz. bucket. If we still drank 6.5 oz. bottles of “liquid candy” on special occasions, soda wouldn’t be a major threat to our health.
I stopped drinking pop in the 1970s, around the time the soda industry was perfecting its marketing machine. As people tripled their gulps of soda, obesity rates tripled in kids and doubled in adults. (Not that soda was entirely to blame.) Type 2 diabetes, which is partly caused by obesity, also shot up.
There is plenty of evidence showing that sugar drinks lead to weight gain. Studies find that people don’t compensate for liquid calories by eating less the rest of the day.
Since 1998, Americans have been wising up. Based on data from the industry publication Beverage Digest, per capita consumption of “carbonated sugar drinks” (which includes regular soda and energy drinks, but not sports drinks, fruit drinks, ades, teas, and sugary waters) dropped by a remarkable 25 percent. Regular Coke is down by 34 percent and Pepsi by an astounding 51 percent.
The soda giants—no surprise—are doing everything they can to restore their profits. Coke recently said that it was adding $1 billion to its $3 billion annual global advertising budget. Companies appear to be spending more advertising dollars on minority populations. And they’re buying up small companies whose flavored waters, teas, and fruit juices fetch higher prices than soda.
The industry’s largest target is developing countries. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are investing an astounding $25 billion over the next five years in just four countries: China, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Mexico has overtaken the United States in per capita soda consumption—and obesity. In response, that country recently levied an excise tax on sugar drinks (and snack foods) that quickly cut consumption by 5 percent.
Company executives are drooling over potential profits from India and China, each with four times the U.S. population. Per capita consumption is only 13 (8 oz.) servings per year in India and 43 per year in China…compared to 486 in the United States. If those countries boosted their consumption only modestly, the profits would pour in.
It’s sad to see developing countries follow us down that road, knowing that sugar drinks will boost obesity, and that obesity raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers (like breast, colon, uterine, pancreatic, and esophageal).
In the United States, warning labels and excise taxes could help curb consumption, supermarkets and restaurants could build in price incentives that encourage people to go for lower-calorie drinks, and cities could restrict portion sizes at restaurants (as New York has been trying to do).
Better yet, the Food and Drug Administration could restrict added sugars in beverages to about one-fourth the current (roughly) 9 teaspoons per 12 ounces, as CSPI petitioned the agency to do in 2013. That would largely solve the soft-drink problem.
Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Center for Science in the Public Interest