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Sugar Overload

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"We are bombarded with messages to drink products that we know are not nutritional.”

SODA AND OTHER SUGARY DRINKS are major contributors to diabetes and obesity among children and adults. “These drinks have no nutritional value whatsoever,” says Dr. Neal Baer, adjunct professor in the Fielding School’s Department of Community Health Sciences and a co-founder of FSPH’s Global Media Center for Social Impact. Yet we continue to pour. In the United States in 2015, the average person consumed 650 eight-ounce servings of carbonated soft drinks.

That a multi-billion dollar industry can be built on a product made for pennies from water, high-fructose corn syrup and flavoring is “a marvel of advertising,” Baer observed in his Afterword to Marion Nestle’s 2015 book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). “There’s no place one can travel in the United States, or even in the world, and not see soda advertised,” Baer says. “We are bombarded with these messages to drink products that we know are not nutritional.” The marketing campaigns focus on joy and refreshment while enlisting some of the biggest celebrities of the day to help close the sale. “You don’t see smiling obese people; you don’t see people with rotten teeth,” Baer says. “The message is that consuming this product will make you a happier person. We see Beyoncé drinking Pepsi and she’s in great shape, so it must be OK.”

Baer, a pediatrician who has written and produced for such television series as ER, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Under the Dome, adds that because of the ubiquitous nature of soda — readily available, often at less cost than water, everywhere from small villages in low-income countries to big-city movie theaters, convenience stores, sporting events and even hospitals — it’s all too easy to overlook its harmful effects. Moreover, soda companies cultivate an image of social responsibility by giving handsomely to important philanthropic causes, thus distracting from the public health consequences of their products through a practice Baer and other critics call healthwashing. “They show concern for the community, but their bottom line is to their shareholders, which means selling products that are not good for people,” Baer says.

For all of these reasons, Baer doesn’t accept the argument that soda companies are simply meeting a demand for their product, and that it’s up to individuals to make their own dietary choices. “These companies talk about giving consumers what they want, but it’s not a level playing field,” Baer says. He believes public health efforts to reduce soda consumption should follow the model of successful anti-tobacco strategies by focusing on policies that discourage users, including soda taxes.