Spin Doctoring and Soda

Lego Dracula

Count Brickula

Some beverage industry spokespeople insist that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and artificially sweetened drinks are benign in their effects on the human body. Some of these mouthpieces even say there is no evidence to the contrary. The Obesity Society thinks there is evidence, and states its case in a reasonable voice:

The Obesity Society recognizes that weight gain is a multi-determined phenomenon…. However, we also recognize, based on the available evidence, that SSBs may be a significant contributor to total energy consumption for some individuals.… In children, the largest randomized trial (641 participants) observed that children who drank one sweetened drink per day for 18 months gained more weight than children who drank one unsweetened drink per day.

The Obesity Society’s Web page also cites several studies involving adults, and goes on to say that the effects are stronger in children than in adults.

Researcher Gitanjali Singh of Harvard’s School of Public Health garnered a considerable amount of criticism for making a controversial speech that attributed tens of thousands of deaths annually to soft drinks. AlterNet’s Steven Hsieh made a point that might explain some of the backlash. Singh dared to mention the “T” word — tax. Yes, she said it, and suggested that taxing sugary beverages might be a good idea. She also suggested putting the brakes on the advertising juggernaut and doing more to keep junk drinks out of the mouths of babes. Obviously this is a woman who must be discredited and, if possible, silenced.

As to the fatalities Singh believes are traceable to SSBs, some critics implied that such a powerful statement is the practical equivalent of a teenage singer shaking her booty — a gesture that, despite generating worldwide headlines, is ultimately meaningless. Lobbyist and Big Soda defender Jeff Nedelman objected to the “venomous rhetoric” of concerned health professionals and opened up the scope of criticism to include the whole area of how science is performed and the separate problem of how scientific news is reported. The sad part is, his contentions contain grains of truth:

The current system of marketing science is incestuous. Scientists must publish to gain peer respect. Academics must publish to get grants and gain promotions. The media has hours of airtime and pages of white space to fill. Keep in mind the person writing the headline has little knowledge about the subject matter.

Nedelman apparently believes in some kind of fancy conspiracy between academia and the media, which is rather silly. Why? Because the amount of money that educational institutions pay for advertising is vanishingly small. The soft drink corporations, on the other hand, pay the media a fortune for space on print and Web pages, and for radio airtime and television visibility.

Appropriate comparisons

What about the system that allows experts who advise governments about health policy to also be on the payroll of soda pop and ice cream companies? If Nedelman can characterize the academia-media relationship as incestuous, then what terminology could possibly be intense enough to describe a perversity that is several levels closer to Hades? The American Beverage Association spends at least $20 million per year to disseminate its core principles, including the harmlessness of soda. Is there a word for this, besides blatant corruption?

And what must we do to avoid letting the fox guard the henhouse? SSB supporters are as predatory as foxes, so how can we trust them to give public policy advice that benefits the people rather than the beverage industry’s bottom line? How, as one health advocate phrased it, do we stop putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Reduced Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Can Reduce Total Caloric Intake,” Obesity.org, April 2014
Source: “Big Soda Knocks Harvard Report Linking ‘Sugary Drinks’ to 180,000 Deaths a Year,” AlterNet.org, 03/20/13
Source: “The venomous rhetoric is worse than the science,” FSHealth.com, 04/10/13
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