Soda Is Cigarettes: The Need for Clearer Villains

By focusing our efforts, just as we did in the battle against cigarettes, we’ll be able to clarify directives and wither away the biggest problem.

“We may be approaching a time when sugar is responsible for more early deaths in America than cigarette smoking.” – Lewis Cantly

“We may be approaching a time when sugar is responsible for more early deaths in America than cigarette smoking.” – Lewis Cantly

As I explained in Physical Morality: Our Obligation To Strengthen Our Bodies, we are currently experiencing a health epidemic that has consequences every bit as devastating as smoking. While there has been undeniable success reducing the number of smokers as a whole, the current obesity epidemic becomes more outrageous each day with no end in sight. Ideally, people would come together and say “Enough is enough. No longer will we allow generations to be pulled down this path.”

Communities should be up in arms, demanding that school curriculums prioritize creating an environment promoting healthy lifestyles and a path to lifelong physical vitality. With little indication of this intervention happening, maybe the best solution is to attack the biggest villain—soda companies. After all, this same single-minded focus has been successful against the cigarette barons, right?

The Problem with Soda

Why soda? It is terrible for you, abused heavily, and it is very highly addictive (you’ll remember that 94% of cocaine-addicted rats chose sugar). Nearly half (or more) of Americans aged 18-34 drink soda every day, and of those daily drinkers, the average consumption is 2.6 glasses. Soda is the number one source of sugar for children and adolescents. The American Heart Association has established a maximum intake of added sugars at 37.5 grams per day for adult men and 25 grams per day for adult women.

Most consumed sugar comes in the form of added sugars (not natural sugars, like fruit) and, because of their cheapness and the tendency to shy away from fat, sugar is infused into everything from ketchup to Craisins. The industry leader Coca-Cola creates their business strategy based upon “heavy users”—those who will reliably drink multiple daily sodas—rather than casual “consumers.” This information is even more distressing considering that one 12 ounce can of Coke packs 39 grams of added sugar.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss explains the tremendous lengths the food giants have gone on to create addiction and habituated poor health. Of all the tricksters none is more successful and insidious than Coca-Cola. In the book, Moss refers to a 1987 study where people were given 40 ounces of soda daily for three weeks.

The average weight gain at the end of three weeks was nearly a pound and a half, putting them on track for 26 pounds in a year. Jeffrey Dunn, former Coca-Cola executive, puts it best: “You can look at the obesity rates, and you can look at per capita consumption of sugary soft drinks and overlay those on a map, and I promise you: They correlate about 99.999%.”

Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Dr. Pepper are the behemoths. Their margins are insane and their influence the most pervasive. Government corn subsidies have made added sugar, in forms like high fructose corn-syrup, practically free. This allows them to create overwhelmingly attractive packages to be featured in every school and every athletic organization. These companies have made their product available in nearly every country and it is often sold cheaper than bottled water in much of the developed world.

Jinx, You Owe Me a Coke

If you need more reason to make soda our villain of choice, be upset by the obvious deception and manipulation they enter into every day. True, most companies would do the same thing, but that argument wasn’t acceptable from Marlboro. Coca-Cola, more than any other company, has been successful in making their brand synonymous with every life event from Christmas to the movies to the ballpark.

More deceptively, they’ve joined hands with a coalition of fitness certification organizations to create the illusion that soda isn’t the problem, it is lack of movement. It isn’t that Coke wants to be unhealthy, it’s just that they go to great lengths to hide how damaging their products are while posing as health advocates. Yes, we need to move more. Way more! Yet, this does not negate the even more harmful role of poor diet.

All the soda companies are working this angle. The Coca-Cola machines I see in schools say “BALANCE WHAT YOU EAT DRINK & DO.” The 7-Up machine I see at my town’s hospital has a large “Let’s Play” logo for, as well as a large “Calories Count: Try a Low Cal Beverage” in the top right corner. While as obvious as any used car or snake oil salesman, these insinuations are quite effective.

One of the greatest coups for the soda companies is the development of artificial sweeteners. This has allowed them to pose as a supportive ally in the fight against poor health. As the evidence condemning sugar as the biggest culprit of poor health became overwhelming, soda companies took the opportunity to unleash a more and more expansive line of low-calorie substitutes.

As usual, Coke has been the most nimble, promoting how they are reducing sugars and utilizing calorie-free sweeteners. They veil everything with qualifiers like, “Sugar in moderation is fine…” as they slyly craft the image of what “ideally moderate” means in a nutrition debate full of extremes. Of course, they know that the majority of their “heavy users” will remain mass consumption, while their new low-calorie substitutes might even bring in new customers. After all, drinking soda is “normal” and now you can do it no cost to your health! Right?

Wrong—artificial sugars are no good. Remember, it was an artificial sweetener that 94% of rats chose over cocaine. Strong evidence suggests that these sweeteners change our palate to crave more sweetness, thus making fruit seem bland, and vegetables inedible. Those drinking lots of low-calorie sodas are likely to crave artificial sugars and processed food while growing intolerant of whole foods.

What’s more, a San Antonio heart study found that artificial sweeteners do not activate the “food-reward pathways” in the same way that natural sweeteners would. As a consequence, we feel less satiated and seek more processed junk. A 2016 study of over 3,000 pregnant women and their babies found that consistent diet soda drinkers were twice as likely to have a baby who was overweight or obese by age 1. A 2015 study found that people who drank diet soda over a 9-year period added triple the abdominal fat as those who didn’t drink soda.

Big Soda is right, we do need to move more, but they don’t get to tell us that in an effort to distract us from the destructive consequences of using their products. After all, we wouldn’t buy into cigarette companies telling us all we needed to do was smoke occasionally and move away from the city air.

How much healthier and physically vital might we be, if not exposed to these palate changing, addictive sodas? How are they that different from cigarettes? Their use is more widespread than cigarettes were at their height. Their product similarly addictive. The health ramifications are similarly devastating. We’ve been successful at greatly reducing cigarette smoking in America, but the confusion of attacking all the elements of poor health has left the food giants impervious. Let’s take down the biggest whale—big soda.

Reflexively, I hate adding regulation and the host of unintended consequences that seem to always follow. Prohibition-style initiatives carry costs far worse than a substance could ever be. The best solution, is persistent, strong education.

Still, some practices should certainly cease. It seems ridiculous to make soda sales and advertisements so ubiquitous within the public school setting. Just as we’d never stand for a Marlboro machine in the high-school common area, it is time we remove the Coca-Cola machine from schools and hospitals—the institutions most rely on for advice on best living practices.

Focus the Education Efforts

Certainly, many other factors play a role in our current health epidemic. I wish we could create movements based on more complex notions, but even the most inspired mass movements tend to quickly be reduced to simplistic narratives.

By focusing our efforts, just as we did in the battle against cigarette smoking, we’ll be able to clarify directives and wither away the biggest problem. With fewer heavy soda users, we’ll find people more receptive to other notions of healthy lifestyle and less dependent on excessive sweetness to satiate their warped palate. This will provide momentum against an obesity epidemic that shows no signs of improving.