- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Judging from recent media coverage, soda is quickly gaining on cigarettes for the title of No. 1 Public Health Threat.

Soft drinks now stand accused of being largely responsible for an epidemic of obesity in America — especially among children. Public health advocates, university scientists, legislators and litigators claim because of an overwhelming and consistent array of scientific evidence linking obesity with soda consumption, the time has come for punitive action against beverage manufacturers and their nefarious products.

The purported solution to obesity in America? Ban soda in schools, put a stiff “junk food” tax on these drinks, put stringent restrictions on where the product can be sold and slap a stern health warning label on all the cans and bottles.

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This demonization of soft drinks as the culprit in the obesity crisis urgently cries out for some perspective:

(1) True, obesity is a serious public health risk in America. A growing number of both adults and children are overweight to the point that their heath is jeopardized. Obesity raises the risk of a full spectrum of ailments including diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, including breast cancer in older women.

(2) Too many Americans underestimate how many calories are consumed in liquid form — but that is true whether that liquid is juice, beer, milk or soda. I recall my daughter’s concern about her weight gain during the first year of college. A quick analysis of her dietary changes revealed she had added four or five bottles of Snapple per day — easily an extra 500 calories daily.

(3) Long-term weight gain is not explained by consuming one category of food or drink. Excessive calories from any food source and insufficient exercise quickly add extra pounds.

(4) A 12-ounce soda provides 160 calories. But so do most similar servings of fruit juice or sports drinks. Those concerned about weight gain should cut calories from various different sources. Switching to diet sodas (zero or minimal calories) is a logical place to start. But somehow recent anti-soda advocates overlook this obvious solution, instead condemning all sodas and telling us we and our kids should drink only water.

(5) The science purportedly linking soda and obesity is very weak indeed. Claims that the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used in soda makes consumers crave sweets through some inherent biological mechanism is unproven conjecture. The fact the dramatic obesity rise began just after HFCS was introduced 25 years ago does not meet the classic epidemiologic criteria for “causation”: it is simply an association.

(6) The increasing comparison of soda and cigarettes — as if they posed comparable health threats — is truly appalling. Headlines such as “Food scientists dub soft drinks ‘Cigarettes’ of obesity epidemic” are not only baseless but offensive. Soft drinks are safe and do not threaten health when used in moderation. No such statement can be made about cigarettes.

(7) The focus on soda as a cause of excess weight overlooks the fact obesity has not one but two components: not only calories ingested but calories burned. Any intervention to combat obesity must concentrate both on calories in and calories out in the form of exercise.

(8) There is an old adage that every complex problem has a simple solution — which doesn’t work. The shoe certainly fits here. Demonizing soda may make advocates feel they are “doing something” about obesity, but without a broader, more scientific approach, Americans will continue to suffer.

Elizabeth M. Whelan is president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org,HealthFactsAndFears.com).

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