The director of the National Institutes for Health, Dr. Francis Collins, explained in an HBO documentary, “Obesity is an enormously complex problem with inputs from several places. Genetics is one; we know that about 60 to 70 percent of the risks of obesity are heritable ones.”
In the same documentary, Dr. David Altshuler, a geneticist and endocrinologist with Massachusetts General Hospital said, “There’s no doubt that genetics – the DNA we inherit from our parents – affects how much we weigh. There’s also no doubt that the environment affects how much we weigh. There’s no nature versus nurture. There’s nature and nurture.”
The science and civics of obesity are not settled matters. As an industry, we understand the policy implications of obesity. But we would rather be partners than adversaries in the fight. In 2006 we joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation – a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation the American Heart Association – to create a new school beverage policy in the United States. Through the National School Beverage Guidelines, we voluntarily removed full-calorie sodas from schools and replaced them with beverages that are lower-calorie and smaller portions. Because of this partnership, there are 90 percent fewer beverage calories in schools nationwide.
Three years ago when she kicked off Let’s Move!, First Lady Michelle Obama challenged the beverage industry to make the calorie labels on our products more user friendly for consumers buying our products. So in 2010, the member companies of the American Beverage Association agreed to put calorie labels on the front of every can, bottle and pack we produce. The labels display the total calories per container on beverages 20 ounces or smaller. For containers larger than 20 ounces, calories are labeled per 12 ounces in most cases.
This year we are expanding the initiative to include vending machines. The Calories Count vending program will offer consumers clear calorie information, encourage lower-calorie beverage choices and remind consumers that calories count in all the choices they make. On the front of vending machines, consumers will see Calories Count™ signs that include one of the following messages: "Check Then Choose" or "Try a Low–Calorie Beverage." The selection buttons will also include calorie labels that show calories per beverage. We launched this program in October 2012 with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro.
Successful eating and exercise habits cannot be legislated. Achieving a healthy weight is a balancing act that politicians are not specially equipped to write into law. Earlier this month, New York State Supreme Court Judge Tingling ruled invalid a portion size ban in the city of New York on sweetened beverages sold in containers larger than 16 ounces. Among his reasons is that the policy is “arbitrary and capricious because it applies to some but not all food establishments in the City” and because it “excludes other beverages that have significantly higher concentrations of sugar sweeteners and/or calories on suspect grounds….”
If the sale of soda, lemonade and sweet tea are limited to an arbitrary amount, what’s next? Why not the 1,000 calorie pizza shared among friends after a high school football game? Or the macaroni and cheese shared with family at Sunday dinner. Or maybe it’s the Chinese takeout eaten in the privacy of your own home after a long day in the office.
Each of us has a personal calorie limit to lose or maintain weight. What Americans eat and drink to maintain good health is a conversation best had with a physician – not a politician.
Neely is president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, the leading policy and public education advocate for the non-alcoholic beverage industry.