Sugary drinks are causing chronic illnesses — we need policy changes to combat them

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When we think of the major killers of Americans, we naturally gravitate towards drugs and violence as the major culprits. These are often graphic deaths that occur abruptly. Too often we neglect chronic diseases, which silently claim far more lives. Heart disease is the leading killer in the United States, followed closely by other related illnesses such as stroke.

As a physician, I am used to treating conditions that contribute to heart disease and stroke in adults — high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Now, I am seeing children sickened by the same diseases.

{mosads}I have cared for teens as young as 13 with high blood pressure and adult-onset diabetes. These children grow up to be adults with lifelong chronic disease who die early from preventable causes.

In my city of Baltimore, 1 in 3 high school students are obese or overweight. It’s no coincidence that more than 1 out of every 4 high school students also drink at least one soda per day. The science is clear — sodas have empty calories that have no nutritional benefit.

Numerous studies have shown that regular consumption of sugary drinks is a major factor in childhood obesity, promoting public health officials to call for eliminating these empty calories as the single biggest lifestyle change parents and children can make.

Two years ago, I fought to protect our residents by supporting legislation in the Baltimore City Council that places warning labels on all sugary drink advertisements, restaurant menus, and stores that sell these drinks.

The warning label included important facts about the dangers of sugary drinks and would have leveled the information playing field for consumers. Yet, despite support of over 2,000 pediatricians, public health leaders, and advocates, the bill failed.

Today, our City Council will hold a second-reader vote on a common-sense bill that makes healthy beverages, including water, milk, and 100 percent fruit juice, the default drink option for kid’s meals sold in Baltimore City.

Currently, many restaurants include soda and fruit drinks as part of the kid’s meals, and parents must pay extra for the healthy alternatives. Switching the default option is a simple step that makes the healthy choice the easy choice.

If this legislation passes, Baltimore would join seven cities in California, the county of Santa Clara, Calif., and the city of Lafayette, Colo., which all have ordinances where the switch has taken place.

Growing research shows that incentivizing healthy drinks through retail practices is an effective way to promote behavior change. For example, Berkeley, Calif., experienced a 21 percent reduction in consumption of sugary drinks after differential pricing was imposed through a soda tax.

There are those who will point to the so-called “nanny state” that imposes requirements on parents. This type of legislation still enables parental and caregiver choice. If families wish, they can still choose an unhealthy drink — but the incentive will be switched to support the healthier choice.  

Critics will also claim there are additional factors that contribute to obesity, including overall dietary patterns and level of physical activity. While this is true, sugary drinks are the largest source of added sugar in the American diet, and a major preventable factor.

Furthermore, national chains have already dropped soda as the default drink, and some, like Panera, have gone even farther, making water the single default drink option for kid’s meals.

For our city of Baltimore, this legislation is about public health. It is also a matter of justice. Research shows that beverage companies disproportionately market sugary drinks to low-income households and neighborhoods with African-American children. These communities already shoulder the greatest burden of chronic disease, with the highest rates of heart disease and diabetes.

Unfair marketing practices further accelerate the development of poor health outcomes among our most vulnerable communities. We cannot continue to silently stand by as this injustice continues to negatively impact our children and families.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), one of Baltimore’s representatives in Congress, frequently reminds us of the decisions we make that will not only affect us, but the generations yet unborn. We must do everything we can to turn the tide on the growing epidemic of childhood obesity and stop the silent killer from claiming more of our residents.

Dr. Leana S. Wen is the Baltimore City Health Commissioner. You can find her on Twitter @DrLeanaWen and @BMore_Healthy.

Tags Chronic condition Diabetes mellitus type 2 Elijah Cummings Excises Obesity Public health Soft drink Sugary drink tax Sweetened beverage

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