A new kind of war on sodas - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

A new kind of war on sodas

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Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 2:35 pm | Updated: 3:23 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Jose de la Isla: First Lady Michelle Obama has launched a campaign to reduce obesity. In doing so, she is expected to avoid taking on a leading cause of childhood obesity, sugary soft drinks. The reason has less to do with health than with politics.

First Lady Michelle Obama has launched a campaign to reduce obesity. In doing so, she is expected to avoid taking on a leading cause of childhood obesity, sugary soft drinks. The reason has less to do with health than with politics.

Here's what's going on: In September, 2009, the idea of a soft-drink tax of a penny-an-ounce arose. Elizabeth Lopatto, in Bloomberg.com, reported that the idea gained muscle because obesity rates in the previous 30 years more than doubled. Sugary drinks were the target because they contribute to more pounds gained because of their calorie content, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The New England Journal of Medicine estimated a soda pop tax would draw nearly $15 billion the first year and about $150 billion within a decade that could be applied to health and wellness issues.

Not everyone was happy about the tax idea. Coca-Cola Co. CEO Muhtar Kent called it "outrageous." Similarly, I heard from a representative of a fructose trade association after reporting on the link between sweeteners, fattiness and the tax. I was told in velvet terms I was mistaken about the downside of fructose corn syrup in products.

That was based on information reported in May 2009 by health issues writer Donna Maldonado-Schullo in Al Dia of Philadelphia stating that one soda a day increased the chances of getting diabetes. The issue is especially critical to the Latino population because of a genetic predisposition among some and lifestyle practices. Soda drinks provide one of the largest single percentages of calories.

Behind the beverage is a scientific controversy concerning high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), as found in soda, which is more "unstable" (can cause tissue damage) than table sugar, according to the science Maldonado-Schullo reported.

Over time the trend has been toward greater consumption. The average person consumed 1.96 soft drinks daily in 1977. This increased to 2.39 by 2001. Meanwhile, the average size drink got super-sized from 13.6 ounces to 21-ounce portions. For young people the average size increased from 15.3 ounces to 25.5 ounces.

The idea of a soda tax arose from health risks arising from obesity, especially those leading to complications (and higher public costs) from the early onset of hypertension, stroke, heart disease and other associated with Type II diabetes. On Feb. 8, ShanghaiDaily.com reported on a 14-year study of 60,524 Singapore residents. Of the 140 reported cases of pancreatic cancer, 87 percent drank two or more sweetened soft drinks a week compared to those who mostly drank fruit juice. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms, with only a 5 percent survival rate after five years in the U.S.

Researchers cautioned over-reading into the finding because soft drink users might also have other high-risk behaviors, such as tobacco smoking or eating red meat, which could be causal.

The World Health Organization recommends that HFCS soft drinks make up no more than 10 percent of a healthful diet. But changing consumption habits is reminiscent of the long effort going into curbing tobacco smoking.

In 2006, 96 percent of the $492 million spent advertising soda was directed at adolescents. And herein lies the reason why Michelle Obama's well-intentioned campaign to prevention obesity is like tilting at windmills compared to the lobbying efforts by the American Beverage Association, which led the opposition against the sugar-drink tax idea.

The group formed another, the Americans Against Food Taxes, made up of soft-drink producers, suppliers and mass marketers. According to democracynow.com, the coalition recruited (and sometimes contributed to) Latino groups to oppose the tax, among them the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity, the National Hispana Leadership Institute, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Hispanic Medical Association (which eventually left the coalition).

The issue now for the Latino groups is whether they are holistically serving the communities they champion or are they free agents for the hire?

Well-intended community advocates, when they compromise themselves too much, like fat people, can have a shortened, useful lifespan.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service.

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