Obesity rates in the United States have been on a steady incline, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) believes sugar-filled sodas are helping those rates bubble up.
On June 7, the advocacy group gathered more than 200 public health officials and community activists in a Washington ballroom for a National Soda Summit designed to strengthen support of the anti-soda movement.
According to CSPI, sugar-sweetened beverages – which are not limited to soda, but also include sports drinks and fruit juices – make up the largest source of calories in the American diet.
Todd Putman, a former top marketing executive at Coca-Cola, told Summit attenders that part of the problem has been the media machine behind the beverage industry.
Putman’s time at Coke was built around “share of stomach,” a marketing idea designed to increase per capita consumption of Coke products.
“We weren’t trying to get share of market,” Putman said. “We weren’t about trying to beat Pepsi or Mountain Dew. We were about trying to beat everything.”
With multi-million dollar ad budgets, sports stars and the entire NFL as marketing tools, soda quickly passed milk on beverage consumption charts.
And while the company had strict policies against marketing to children age 11 and younger, marketing professionals salivated at the chance to sell soft drinks to teenagers.
“I would say 90 percent of all soft drink marketing is targeted at 12- to 24-year olds,” Putman said. Brand loyalty begins at a young age, and Coke wanted to make sure that more and more of the young demographic were loyal to it.
Coca-Cola pointed out that Putman has not worked for the company in more than 10 years, and suggested their marketing strategy has changed. They have voluntarily pulled sugar-filled drinks from school vending machines, for example, and are working to market lower-calorie choices.
But beverage serving sizes in restaurants and convenience stores are growing, as are the waistlines of Americans.
According to a 2012 study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, nearly half of the American population will be obese by 2030.
The numbers may be even more dire for the church, as a Northwestern University study found that young adults who attend church or Bible study once a week are 50 percent more likely to be obese than their non-churched counterparts.
This could be due to church events often revolving around food. Church dinners with heavy casseroles, summer ice cream socials, and “coffee hours” with doughnuts and baked sweets are rarely balanced with church activities that promote movement and healthy living.
Increasing obesity rates are problematic because individuals who are overweight or obese are likely to have more health problems, including heart problems and diabetes.
The American Journal of Preventative Medicine researchers estimate that by 2030, an additional $66 billion will be spent in health care due to 7.8 million new cases of diabetes, 6.8 million new cases of stroke and heart disease, and 539,000 new cancer diagnoses.
New York health commissioner Thomas Farley suggested that many people across the country are concerned about the obesity epidemic but don’t know what they can do.
New York City is hoping to answer that question with a new proposal to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in the city’s restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and food carts.
A recent phone poll commissioned by CSPI reports that 50 percent of those surveyed support a limit on soft drink serving sizes, while 48 percent oppose the idea.
“In New York City we have an obligation to act to stem this crisis,” Farley said. “This proposal is based not on a poll but on our belief that it will help reverse the obesity epidemic and thus save lives.”
CSPI hopes that the Soda Summit will lead to decreased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. The organization is hopeful that sugary drinks will be replaced with healthy beverages, such as water.
“Bringing down serving sizes from 64- and 32-ounce buckets makes a lot of sense, and just one of a dozen things health officials should do to reduce consumption,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI.
“Sugary soda provides nothing of benefit to the diet and is a leading contributor to obesity, diabetes and other debilitating and expensive-to-treat diseases. We should also tax it, place warning labels on it, run television campaigns against it and do everything we can to get people to drink less,” said Jacobson. “It’s time to restore soft drinks to what they once were: an occasional treat.”