Like turning a cruise ship, changing public opinion takes a lot of time, patience and planning.
For decades, tobacco was regarded as harmless and even as a healthful stress management tool. Medical experts recognized the error in the 1950s but it wasn't until 1964, when the Surgeon General of the United States, Luther A. Terry, issued a landmark report on smoking and health, that public opinion began to shift.
The report was factual and fully documented, devoid of loaded language or political overtones. Like a U.S. Treasury note, it carried the full force and authority of the United States government.
Even then, it took more than 30 years for widespread acceptance of the horrific health effects of smoking on both smokers and those unlucky enough to be downstream. Add another 10 years for state and local governments to finally ban smoking in public places.
Since then, various Surgeons General have continued the crusade, issuing more than 25 subsequent reports documenting various ill effects of smoking -- smoking and women, smoking and youth, smokeless tobacco -- along with occasional reports on youth violence, sexual abuse, physical inactivity and AIDS, but nothing on excessive sugar intake.
Now, a coalition of health and consumer advocates and several municipal public health departments say it's time to do it again. They're calling on the current Surgeon General, Regina A. Benjamin, to issue a similarly authoritative report on the health effects of soda and other sugary drinks.
They're looking for a comprehensive report that pulls together all the current research on the health effects of widespread consumption of soda and the damage done to the economy by the diseases attributed to large-scale guzzling of the sugary goop that has somehow come to be identified with youthful vigor.
"Soda and other sugary drinks are the only food or beverage that has been directly linked to obesity, a major contributor to coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, and a cause of psychosocial problems," the groups wrote in a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. "Yet, each year, the average American drinks about 40 gallons of sugary drinks, all with little, if any, nutritional benefit."
Is it an impossible dream? Isn't bubbly, sugary soda so ingrained in the American way of life that it can't be driven out? You might think so but then again, public opinion may already be shifting.
ConsumerAffairs conducted a computerized sentiment analysis of more than 2.3 million postings about Pepsi-Cola on social media like Facebook and Twitter over the last 12 months. Surprisingly, we found that the negative attributes far outweighed the positive ones, as shown in this graph:
Interestingly, we found nearly identical sentiments about Coca-Cola -- about 2.3 million comments with an overwhelming number recognizing that sugary drinks contribute to tooth decay.
|Regina Benjamin, MD, MBA|
The groups say that soda and sugary drinks have a devastating effect on the health of young people in particular. Each extra soft drink consumed per day was associated with a 60-percent increased risk of overweight in children, according to one important study.
Type 2 diabetes, which used to occur primarily in middle-aged and older adults, is now becoming more common among teens. Though soda consumption has declined somewhat in recent years, consumption is still dangerously high, according to the letter. Even almost half of two- and three-year-olds consume sugary drinks every day, according to the group.
"Previous reports and calls to action from the Surgeon General, on topics as varied as tobacco, underage drinking, and obesity, have helped galvanize policymakers at all levels of government," said Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Unlike just about any other product in the food supply, sugar-based drinks are directly connected to obesity and diet-related disease. Reducing their consumption should be one of the main pillars of the government’s prevention strategy."
The call for a Surgeon General's report on soda and sugary drinks was organized by the CSPI, and included the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, Consumer Federation of America, National Hispanic Medical Association, Prevention Institute, the Trust for America's Health, and Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Public health departments in Boston, El Paso, New York City, and Philadelphia also signed the letter to Sebelius.