Health News Digest

Fat kid with big soda

February 4, 2019

CDC, Coca-Cola, Sugary Drinks, And Obesity

By Michael D. Shaw

All good science begins with an observation, for which a hypothesis is proposed, and this hypothesis is tested with an experiment. In a perfect world, an experiment can be designed whereby the hypothesis is either confirmed or disproved. In an imperfect world (but one without Josef Mengele), a revelatory experiment may not be possible—especially if one is dealing with humans.

So, here’s the observation: When I was a young kid in the 1950s, there were very few obese people. In my elementary school with perhaps 500 students, there may have been five fat kids. Truth be told, by today’s standards they were only a tad overweight. Fast forward to today, and nearly one in five school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity.

Bear in mind that in the 1950s and early 1960s, much of what we ate—by today’s standards—was junk food. No one cared about “healthy” methods of food preparation; many of the kids drank either chocolate whole milk, or added chocolate syrup to their white milk; and diet soft drinks did not exist. Very likely, our diets were higher in fat than what is recommended these days—especially saturated fat. And, some cultures consumed prodigious amounts of carbohydrates in their diet.

I also remember that kids were extremely active, whatever the season, and that obese people were ostracized (no positive body image movement existed). Plus, food and beverage servings were smaller.

One partial hypothesis to explain our current obesity epidemic is the wide consumption of sugary drinks aka “liquid candy.” No doubt, this easy infusion of hundreds of calories is a contributing factor. Yet, sugary soft drinks are inevitably the target, even though “healthy” fruit juice can have even more calories.

As you might imagine, the good folks at Coca-Cola feel targeted, notably in light of then NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s idea to tax sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces. At the time, Steve Cahillane, then president and CEO of the company’s Coca-Cola Refreshments unit said: “We’re not putting our head in the sand and saying there’s not an obesity epidemic in this country. There is. But we believe that we can be part of the solution rather than be demonized and discriminated against.”

One way to be part of the solution is to collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On January 29th, an article appeared in The Milbank Quarterly, entitled “Public Meets Private: Conversations Between Coca-Cola and the CDC.” The work was based on e-mails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. The authors wished to explore the nature of corporate influence and lobbying. They believe that there should be in place greater transparency and clearer policies when agencies engage with such industries. They note that…

“Although there is widespread agreement about the importance of not engaging with the tobacco industry, interactions between health researchers, practitioners, and policymakers and the manufacturers of other potentially harmful products are controversial.”

Of course, as any Washington hand will tell you, this sort of “engagement” goes on all the time, as lobbyists and congressional staff work together to form policy. And this activity covers every conceivable product, “potentially harmful” or not.

The authors conclude…

“It is unacceptable for public health organizations to engage in partnerships with companies that have such a clear conflict of interest. The obvious parallel would be to consider the CDC’s working with cigarette companies and the dangers that such a partnership would pose. Our analysis has highlighted the need for organizations like the CDC to ensure that they refrain from engaging in partnerships with harmful product manufacturers, lest they undermine the health of the public they serve.”

Wait just a moment. Cigarette smoking has been proven to be a direct cause of lung cancer, and is implicated in other serious diseases. Sugar has been implicated in tooth decay and weight gain, but how are sugary beverages an “obvious parallel” with cigarettes? Moreover, for more than 40 years, virtually all sugary beverage makers have included sugar-free counterparts in their product lines.

Besides, who should determine what constitutes a “harmful product,” anyway? And why shouldn’t the manufacturers collaborate with the Feds? Chain saws, for example, can be quite harmful, given the noise exposure and savage cutting edge. It seems to me that collaboration here could only be positive.

Sugar, if consumed in excess, has potential negative effects—but this is hardly a unique distinction.

Pivoting back to my childhood once more, don’t you find it ironic that back then, despite the lack of public health gurus and academic scolds telling us what we should and shouldn’t consume, almost no one was fat? Meanwhile, here in Fairfax County, VA, we got a light dusting of snow as I write this, and school was cancelled. Snowflakes, indeed.