Coke Blinks

Once again, Coke has blinked. It famously did so in 1985, when it introduced “new” Coke, replacing its original formula with one it thought would have greater appeal with its audience. It was wrong then.

This time it might be right, but it isn’t going to do the world’s best-known brand any good. It’s hurting from decreased domestic sales and smarting from the piles of evidence that soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are not only our biggest source of calories, but also among our most harmful. So it has struck back with a two-minute video whose ostensible message is that too many calories will make you fat (true), that those in Coke are no worse than any others (false), and that we’re all in this together (ridiculous).

The video is brilliantly executed. Its honeyed, heart-rending voice-over and stirring images — as American as a Chevy commercial — nearly caused me to go out and buy a case myself, as I recalled those innocent days of the ’50s and ’60s when Coke and cigarettes and Our Country and I were all (it seemed) young together, happy and happening and eating burgers and fries like there was no tomorrow. It took me back to when Coke was the real thing, it was “it,” we were teaching the world to sing together, and even Mean Joe Greene was just a cutie. There’s always been Coca-Cola.

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Stop Subsidizing Obesity

Not long ago few doctors – not even pediatricians – concerned themselves much with nutrition. This has changed, and dramatically: As childhood obesity gains recognition as a true health crisis, more and more doctors are publicly expressing alarm at the impact the standard American diet is having on health.

“I never saw Type 2 diabetes during my training, 20 years ago,” David Ludwig, a pediatrician, told me the other day, referring to what was once called “adult-onset” diabetes, the form that is often caused by obesity. “Never. Now about a quarter of the new diabetes cases we’re seeing are Type 2.”

Ludwig, who is director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center in Boston, is one of three authors, all medical doctors of an essay (“Viewpoint”) in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Opportunities to Reduce Childhood Hunger and Obesity.”

That title that would once have been impossible, but now it’s merely paradoxical. Because the situation is this: 17 percent of children in the United States are obese, 16 percent are food-insecure (this means they have inconsistent access to food), and some number, which is impossible to nail down, are both. Seven times as many poor children are obese as those who are underweight, an indication that government aid in the form of food stamps, now officially called SNAP, does a good job of addressing hunger but encourages the consumption of unhealthy calories.

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Dietary Seat Belts

Here’s some good news: Seat belts save lives[1] . So do vaccinations. The world’s population is living longer. The childhood obesity rate has declined[2] in parts of the United States.

That’s miraculous, because the policies for food, energy, climate change and health care are, effectively, “let’s help big producers make as much money as they can regardless of the consequences.”

Except for just after the most visible tragedies, public health and welfare are barely part of the daily conversation. When New York is flooded, climate change dominates TV news — for a week. When innocents are slaughtered with weapons designed for combat, gun control is a critical topic — for a week. When 33 people die violent, painful deaths from eating cantaloupe, food safety is in the headlines — for a week. When nearly 70,000 people die a year, from mostly preventable diabetes, most media ignore it.

Forget the fiscal cliff: we’ve long since fallen off the public health cliff. We need consistent policies that benefit a majority of our citizens, even if it costs corporations money.

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Pesticides: Now More Than Ever

How quickly we forget.

After the publication of “Silent Spring,” 50 years ago, we (scientists, environmental and health advocates, birdwatchers, citizens) managed to curb the use of pesticides[1] and our exposure to them — only to see their application grow and grow to the point where American agriculture uses more of them than ever before.

And the threat is more acute than ever. While Rachel Carson[2] focused on their effect on “nature,” it’s become obvious that farmworkers need protection from direct exposure while applying chemicals to crops[3] . Less well known are the recent studies showing that routine, casual, continuing — what you might call chronic — exposure to pesticides is damaging not only to flora but to all creatures, including the one that habitually considers itself above it all: us.

As usual, there are catalysts for this column; in this case they number three.

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The Domino Theory, Redux

Imagine you had a multibillion-dollar industry that was (a) enormously profitable and (b) under frequent attack from public health researchers because (c) it’s demonstrably bad for the health of your customers.

This was, of course, the story of the tobacco industry, and it is – right now – the story of the sugar-sweetened beverage industry.[1] Like the cigarette makers, the peddlers of soda cannot do much about any of this: they owe it to their shareholders to maintain those profits, and the products they sell evidently cannot, no matter how hard they try, be tinkered with to change factors (b) and (c). [2]

Even if the beverage industry were composed of the nicest people in the world, it will not stop marketing to children unless it’s made to; indeed, these marketing efforts are within the rules of the game, however deadly they may be. The outcome of those rules and the marketing they allow is pandemic obesity and all the costs associated with it, which have been detailed enough elsewhere to pass over here.

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Does Soda Tax Have Enough Fizz?

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This week the Wall Street Journal and James Knickman, President and CEO of the New York State Health Foundation, weighed in on a potential soda tax. WSJ cited research which suggested that while a 40% levy on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages would raise $2.5 billion annually, it would “only” result in an average weight loss of 1.3 pounds per person, per year (most of that weight being lost in middle-income households.) The article goes on to paraphrase one of the primary authors of the study:

If the goal is obesity prevention, taxing only sugary drinks may not be the most effective way to go. . . Targeting the sugary and fat-laden foods with the lowest per-calorie cost would actually suggest going after candy rather than soda, he says. A soda tax might have its biggest effect on obesity not by reducing consumption, but by raising money to put towards prevention or other anti-obesity efforts.

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Obesity: The New “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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I love this take on obesity as a threat to national security from David Frum, former special assistant to President George W. Bush: “In 2008, some 634 military personnel were discharged for transgressing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That same year, 4,555 were discharged for failing to meet military weight standards.”

In other words, obesity is a much greater threat to the United States military than homosexuality, so maybe we should put the latter issue to bed and get on to the former. If somebody could convince the war hawks in congress that combatting obesity and improving the American food system actually counts as defense spending, imagine how far we might get:

Don’t ask your fellow soldiers if they supersized their McDonald’s. Don’t tell them if you did.

(Photo Credit: The U.S. Army via Flickr)