Groups call on surgeon general to study sugary drinks and health. (Getty Images )
More than 100 health organizations and municipal public health departments, along with more than two dozen scientists, have asked the U.S. surgeon general to issue a report on sugar-sweetened soft drinks – akin to the landmark 1964 report on tobacco.
“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,” reads the letter, sent Thursday to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The surgeon general is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Yet, each year, the average American drinks about 40 gallons of sugary drinks, all with little, if any, nutritional benefit,” the letter says, noting that research has shown 46% of 2- and 3-year-olds drink sugary drinks daily.
A surgeon general’s report, the letter says, could evaluate the science and appraise the health effects of sugar-sweetened beverages. And it “would pave the way for policy measures at all levels of government.”
Sodas and other caloric soft drinks have been repeatedly targeted recently, including calls for their removal from school and public vending machines, and the mayor of New York’s proposal to limit the size of soft drinks sold in many places.
“I think people are coming around to the notion that sugary drinks aren’t healthy, and one of the astonishing things is that per capita consumption of [nondiet] carbonated drinks has gone down by 24% between 1998 and 2011, which is a big under-the-radar change in people’s drinking habits,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organizer of the letter.
The American Beverage Assn. said in a statement that a surgeon general’s study would not result in “meaningful solutions” to the obesity problem.
"Despite what CSPI would have you believe, soft drinks do not uniquely contribute to obesity. The facts bear this out. Added sugars from beverages continue to decline in Americans’ diets, yet obesity rates continue to rise. This misguided focus on sugar-sweetened beverages distracts from finding meaningful solutions to obesity. If we are serious about reducing obesity, then we must focus on the overall diet and physical activity,” the association said.
Jacobson said Friday that the “goal isn’t to wipe out sugary drinks completely,” but to return “soft drinks back in the place they were 50 years ago, an occasional small serving.”
And among the questions that remains in the debate over caloric soft drinks is whether there’s any addictive aspect – a question that remains unsettled.
“That’s the blockbuster question – is sugar addictive? It’s certainly controversial,” Jacobson said. “It may be that it tastes good so people like it.”
The beverage association bristles at any comparisons with tobacco.
“There is simply no comparison between soda and tobacco – not among our products, nor our business practices. Tobacco in and of itself is harmful – in any amount; our beverages are not. They can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, active and healthy lifestyle,” the group said.
Among those who signed the letter: the American Heart Assn., the Boston Public Health Commission, the national Assn. of County and City Health Officials, the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, the New York City and Philadelphia health departments.
Calories from sugar-sweetened beverages make up about 7% of the calories in the American diet.