Soda Ban Supporters Silence Science

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  • 07/23/2012

Dumb and Dumber: Hey guys, whoa, big gulps huh? Alright. Well ...

Tomorrow the NYC Department of Health holds hearings on its proposal to ban more than 16 oz servings of sugar sweetened soft drinks.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s statement about Prohibition: to control human appetite thourhg legislation by making a crime out of something that is not a crime is beyond reason…”

But then again  the war against soft drinks and sugar shaping up to be a nutritional Climategate.

Climate change researchers and scientists who do not sing from the global warming hymnal – even if they acknowledge that human activity contributes to changes in our environment – are silenced and sanctioned.  They are attacked in public, denied opportunities to publish and participate in conferences and savaged for receiving funding from private companies.  The true believers control the message and the policy response to global warming.   As Bjorn Lomborg has noted this is leading to” elaborate and expensive actions…to stop global warming  that will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, are often based on emotional rather than strictly scientific assumptions, and may very well have little impact on the world's temperature.”

The same thing is going on in the public crusade against sugar and sugar sweetened soft drinks.   The attacks that claim sugar is as dangerous as smoking or alcohol are not scientific.  Those leading the charge are attacking and silencing anyone who dares to challenge this viewpoint.  And it’s leading to policies and actions like the soda ban that   limit freedom without having any impact on our health. 

The effort to restrict the size of soft drinks consumption flows from an obesity arena that Jeffrey Friedman  -- a pioneer in the genetics of obesity – has described as “so political, so rife with misinformation and disinformation.”

As Friedman told the New York Times in 2004, scientific data shows “..that body weight, in animals and humans, is not under conscious control. Body weight, he says, is genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height. Genes control not only how much you eat but also the metabolic rate at which you burn food. “  As Friedman notes,  ''People live in the moment.  They lose weight over the short term and say that they have exercised willpower.” But over the long term, the body's intrinsic controls win out. And just as willpower cannot make fat people thin, a lack of it does not make thin people fat.”

Indeed, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the increase in obesity is a result of people who are programmed to gain weight doing so and pulling the average weight of the nation upward.   In 1991, 23 percent of Americans fell into the obese category; now 31 percent do, a more than 30 percent increase. But the average weight of the population has increased by just 7 to 10 pounds since 1991.

The same data shows that while “prevalence of obesity in the United States increased during the last decades of the 20th century.. “More recently there appears to have been a slowing of the rate of increase or even a leveling off.  The decline is most pronounced in younger adults, primarily women.  

Further, previous increases in weight gain are inversely related to the decline in smoking.  In fact much of the death associated with obesity is actually related to smoking.  So much for Mayor Bloomberg’s assertion that obesity related deaths will soon exceed smoking related mortality.  

Last week another study said inactivity is the leading cause of preventable deaths.  Set aside the problems of assuming all death is related to inactivity or any other single factor:  If inactivity is the leading cause of preventable deaths, can obesity or smoking or anything else be the leading reason too?  In fact, several epidemiological studies show that being heavier or even obese is not associated with higher mortality rates.  Indeed,  a  higher BMI in both sexes and WC in men were associated with increased survival in older adults, while a higher WHR or WTR either decreased or did not influence risk of death.

So why focus on sugar or sugar sweetened soft drinks as the biggest public health menace?

Those who do so claim it’s because sugar consumption is out of control and even addictive.   (I guess more so than drinking.)  But the addiction assertion has little evidence to support it.

And it’s undercut in any event by Department of Agriculture data showing that consumption of sugar and soft drinks has declined over the past decade as fruit, vegetable and fiber consumption as a percent of daily caloric intake has increased.   So has the number of people who are not only told by their doctor to exercise but also go out and “just do it.”

New York City is part of this trend.  According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New York City kids – across every borough --  follow this national trend.  In NYC the adoption of healthy lifestyles by teenagers  started in 1997 well before the ban was proposed and well before soda and snack foods were banned from schools.  The same goes with exercise.   Since 1997, high school students in the city have been watching less television and exercising.  Yet under Bloomberg physical education classes have been cut throughout the school system.

The ban on soda makes sense only as an emotional response by people whose minds are made up.  Otherwise it’s silly.   Hence if the soda ban is enacted, you can go to happy hour for NYC 24 oz. tallboys  (as well as free jello shots) but not a 20 oz Pepsi.  But guess which is a bigger public health problem in the NYC?

Here’s what the NYC Department of Health said about alcohol in NYC:  "alcohol-related deaths are among the leading causes of death in NYC; in 2008, an estimated 1,537 NYC adults died of alcohol-related causes. These included deaths from chronic alcohol use, such as alcoholism, and deaths from acute alcohol use, such as binge drinking. Liver disease accounts for one fifth (22%) of all alcohol-related deaths and is the most common chronic cause.”

Silencing those who disagree with the anti-sugar crusaders will lead to failed polices that distract from more effective solutions and real problems.  The soda size ban is just the start down that wrong direction.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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