"Is soda the new tobacco?" That's the question posted by a Page One article in the Sunday Week in Review by Mark Bittman, who writes "The Minimalist," a no-fun food column, for the Times. Bittman thinks America needs a soda tax to combat obesity: "A Sin We Sip Instead of Smoke?" Bittman, in food police mode, ups the ante, comparing the cola
companies to the tobacco executives of old, using dishonest marketing
and cynical appeals to children.
The text box was truly over the top: "To help dam the river of sugared drinks that Americans pour into ever-fatter bodies each year, some suggest a soda tax and warning labels."
(Times Watch suspects that somewhere on W. 41th Street works a copy editor in a joylessly puritanical relationship with food. In October 2009, some anonymous text box writer summarized a bake-sale ban in NYC schools thusly: "Trying to keep obese students away from their favorite poisons.")
Bittman has previously expounded on the dubious joys of vegetarianism and wanted meat downgraded as a lifestyle choice in a 2008 Week in Review article: "If those trends continue, meat may become a treat rather than a routine. It won't be uncommon, but just as surely as the S.U.V. will yield to the hybrid, the half-pound-a-day meat era will end."
From Sunday's piece:
Is soda the new tobacco?
In their critics' eyes, producers of sugar-sweetened drinks are acting a lot like the tobacco industry of old: marketing heavily to children, claiming their products are healthy or at worst benign, and lobbying to prevent change. The industry says there are critical differences: in moderate quantities soda isn't harmful, nor is it addictive.
The problem is that at roughly 50 gallons per person per year, our consumption of soda, not to mention other sugar-sweetened beverages, is far from moderate, and appears to be an important factor in the rise in childhood obesity. This increase is at least partly responsible for a rise in what can no longer be called "adult onset" diabetes - because more and more children are now developing it.
Attention is being paid: Last week, the Obama administration announced a plan to ban candy and sweetened beverages from schools. A campaign against childhood obesity will be led by the first lady, Michelle Obama. And a growing number of public health advocates are pushing for even more aggressive actions, urging that soda be treated like tobacco: with taxes, warning labels and a massive public health marketing campaign, all to discourage consumption.
The public war against tobacco has worked, if imperfectly: Americans smoke at half the rate they once did, half of all smokers have quit, and the tobacco companies finance strong antismoking campaigns.
In the case of tobacco, the health risks of smoking were clear. But the beverage industry contends that science does not back up the assertion that childhood obesity is even partly caused by soda consumption, and has sought to make the discussion about personal choice and freedom. "Soda has calories, and food with calories causes people to put on weight when consumed in excess," says J. Justin Wilson a self-described "libertarian consumer advocate" and senior research analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry-sponsored advocacy group. "But there is no unique link between soda and obesity."
At the end Bittman dons full liberal nanny-state regalia:
The problem, says Dr. Frieden, is that, "Obesity is a major health problem that's getting worse, and it's clear that exhorting individuals to eat less and exercise more is not going to turn things around."
It may be time to try something a little more forceful.