Are sugary sodas the new tobacco?

At today’s National Soda Summit on Capitol Hill, there was none of this.

Instead, there was this: grapefruit-flavored and celery-flavored water.


Ice water, too–and heated rhetoric.

“People are gradually recognizing that Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola are really Toxic Colas and are causing tremendous health harm,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that organized the event.

“Sugary drinks promote obesity, diabetes, cancer…and other illnesses,” Jacobson  said. “This is a plague.”

About 250 public-health advocates from across the US — an impressive tuurnout — came to Washington to share ideas on how to further curb soda consumption.

Many of them also work on campaigns to reduce smoking–and they argued that soda, like tobacco, causes illness and death. Indeed, the tactics being deployed against soda–taxes, restrictions on marketing, efforts to keep it out of public benefits, campaigns to stop SNAP benefits (today’s food stamps) from being used to buy soda–all come right out of the successful campaigns to curb smoking rates.

Coming, as it does, just after New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban large-size servings on sugared drinks in restaurants, delis, theaters and sports arenas, the “soda summit” is a guarantee that more trouble lies ahead for the sellers of sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs, as they’re known in the trade. The Cokes and Pepsis of the world can expect fierce and unrelenting attacks.

Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, for example, tried to impose a  2-cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2010 and again in 2011, but he was unable to win support for them on the City Council. But Nutter made a point of saying at the summit that his proudest accomplishment during 14 years on the Philadelphia City Council was his passage of anti-smoking legislation–and he argued that obesity and sugar-sweetened beverages are equally important targets.

“Sugar sweetened beverages may not be solely responsible for rising obesity rates in America, but they are surely connected,” Nutter said. “A Mountain Dew and a bag of potato chips is a breakfast of champions in some parts of our city.”

Philadelphia, he said, has launched a full-fledged public health campaign to combat obesity. It includes menu-labeling laws, more gym classes in schools, bike lanes and subsidies for low-income people who spend their food stamps at farmer’s markets.

“Education, taxation and better access to healthier options all have to be part of the solution,” Nutter said.

Meantime, Boston has banned “full-sugar” beverages in city buildings and at city-sponsored events. The Cleveland Clinic has banned sugared sodas. Los Angeles County ran a $1 million media campaign to discourage soda consumption. Richmond, California, voters will decide on a 1-cent per ounce soda tax in this fall’s elections.

It’s easy to poke fun at all  this. “What’s next?” asked the industry-funded Center for Consumer Freedom, in response to Bloomberg’s plan. “Limits on the width of a pizza slice, size of a hamburger or amount of cream cheese on a bagel?”

It’s also worth thinking carefully about whether government is over-reaching when it tells a deli owner that he can’t serve a soda in a 20-ounce cup.

But, on closer inspection, so far at least, most of the government actions against soda look more like nudges than they do outright bans.

Bloomberg’s plan to ban on large cups in fast food restaurants, for instance,  doesn’t limit what people can drink. Instead, it targets mindless drinking and eating.

In an excellent presentation, Thomas Farley, the New York City health commissioner who helped author the city’s plan, said people can have as many cups and as much soda as they want.

“It’s not saying ‘no’ to people. It’s saying ‘are you sure?’ Is this what you really want,” Farley said. He showed a Coca-Cola ads from the 1950s promising that you can serve three people from a 16-oz bottle of Coke. How quaint.

As for soda taxes, shouldn’t we tax things that we want discourage (soda, carbon emissions) instead of the things that we want to promote, like jobs (with payroll taxes that discourage hiring).

Farley, too, drew clear parellels between anti-smoking and anti-obesity campaigns. In New York City, he noted, smoking rates have declined steadily during the last decade while obesity rates continue to tick upwards, with devastating consequences.

“People who are obese suffer,” said Farley.

Obesity, he said, accounts for 5,800 deaths in New York and $4 billion in direct medical costs. One in eight New Yorkers have diabetes. About 2600 people were hospitalized for diabetes-related amputations in the last year.

That’s terribly sad–and entirely unnecessary. This isn’t isn’t going away.


  1. Ed Reid says

    How long will it be before we try “prohibition” again, whether it be cigarettes, soft drinks, Twinkies, etc.? After all, it worked so well last time. :-)

  2. says

    I am 55 and I do contribute much of my aging to the sodas you are speaking of. My parent used them as rewards when I was a child. We got them at the pharmacy before church as 3 and 4 year olds. Cavities, sugar cravings, tempermental after it wore off. Need I say more…….. a fun read…enjoy.

  3. Kat says

    Interesting! I think banning from schools was a good move, but really we want the people to WANT to not fill their bodies with crap like soda, we don’t want them to be mad that they can’t buy it…in a perfect world people would consider the repercussions of the choices they make…thank god my mom hated soda and never had it in the house.

  4. says

    Everyone seems to agree these things are just as dangerous as tobacco, and while it’s illegal to sell cigs to minors, sugary drinks are actually encouraged in advertisements and commercials…How is that possible? I mean, everyone seems to agree they’re bad for you, yet they’re free to buy and not as highly taxed as alcohol or tobacco. Heck of a world we live in.

    Celery and grapefruit flavored water, thanks for a very good idea!

  5. says

    “Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia” Name says it all, doesn’t it?

    More example of government overreach and nanny state gone mad. Regulations like this are a silly waste of taxpayer money, when much more could be done by simple education. I’m not a fan of soda but I would never endorse a rule limiting somebody’s freedom to drink it in whatever quantity they want. The only unfortunate aspect is that we end up paying for the health costs as taxpayers…gee if only people were responsible for their own costs incurred as a result of poor decisions. Better call on the taxpayers!

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