For years doctors and politicians have tried to curb the American thirst for sugary sodas. In 2012, for example, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg banned the sale of large containers of sodas there. When the measure was later overturned, a new tactic was adopted, according to The New York Post:
"Dr. Thomas Farley, Bloomberg's health commissioner, urged the feds to reconsider making sodas more expensive.
‘A soda tax is the simplest way to reduce consumption of sugary drinks, which are the biggest single contributor to the obesity epidemic in this country,'" according to Dr. Farley."
However the sales of cola and other carbonated drinks have been declining for years -- and in fact are at a 30-year low.
As a Fortune news story noted:
"The industry has found itself out of favor as consumers seek beverage alternatives to soda that they deem healthier, notably juices and flavored waters. Those alternatives don't contain as many calories as soda, and also don't include ingredients like the sweetener aspartame, which has fallen out of favor in recent years."
A Sugary Contradiction While the drop in sugary colas is good news for everyone except the beverage companies, this leads to an apparent contradiction: If it's true, as Dr. Farley and others have claimed, that soft drinks are the dominant contributor to the weekly caloric intake by most Americans, how can it be that the general population has gained weight over the past decades, at the same time that soda consumption has declined?
If sugary drinks are being consumed less and less each year, then Americans should be losing weight instead of gaining it, all else being equal.
Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Public Health, explained this paradox in an e-mail to Discovery News: "The fact that the obesity epidemic in the USA remains unabated in spite of significant reductions in consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, including sodas, over the past years may be related to consumers simply replacing the lower consumption of calories from sugar-sweetened beverages with calories from other food products. In other words it is possible that individuals deciding to consume diet sodas or water instead of regular sodas, are not ‘saving' those calories but rather are simply consuming the same amount of calories or even more from other foods."
Dr. Perez-Escamilla adds, "Consumers may feel that it is fine to eat unhealthy foods in abundance because they are consuming a diet product."
Most of us have seen this at some point: the person who orders a double bacon cheeseburger with large fries -- with a large Diet Coke, just to offset the calories. Some scientists suggest that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame found in diet drinks may also contribute to the obesity problem.
With the help of mayor Bloomberg, lawmakers in other cities and states have put forth similar proposals to curb sugary soda consumption. As the Los Angeles Times reported last month:
"Alarmed by an obesity epidemic, two state lawmakers on Tuesday proposed a ‘health impact fee' of 2 cents per ounce on sugar-sweetened sodas and other drinks sold in California. The proposal by Democratic Assemblymen Richard Bloom of Santa Monica and Jim Wood of Healdsburg would add 24 cents to 12-ounce soft-drink cans, to be charged at the distributor level."
The money raised by this soda tax would fund public health initiatives, but is largely intended to discourage sugary soda consumption -- an admirable goal, but a trend which has already been happening for 30 years and is likely to continue with or without the added tax.
Furthermore the money potentially raised by the tax on sugary drinks, while significant, is getting smaller each year as diet drinks, juices, and bottled water take a larger market share.
Dr. Perez-Escamilla acknowledged that sugary drinks are only a small part of a much larger problem: "the obesity epidemic requires addressing the whole dietary and beverages pattern and not just individual foods or beverages. For this to happen however, there are major policy and food/beverage ‘environment' shifts that are required." The fight over sugary sodas and taxes will continue.