Shafter, Calif.--The Coke commercial on Spanish-language TV begins inside the sun-filled bedroom of a young Latina. She is dark-haired and skinny, caught between childhood and adolescence. She throws a Christina Aguilera CD on the player and plops down on her bed. With a kind of seduction on her face, she tips back a 20-ounce bottle of Coca Cola.
No sooner does fizz strike than magic happens.
The girl is no longer a girl or even dark haired. She is now Aguilera herself, blonde, dressed in halter top and tight pants, shaking her fit body across the Coca Cola-lit stage. In her dressing room after the concert, Aguilera tips back her own 20-ounce bottle of Coke. Poof. The dream's over. The little girl is back in her room. Disfruta! Enjoy!
The commercial's not-so-subliminal message hits straight home. My 10-year-old daughter is that child in the bedroom, dreaming of a life beyond the farm town of Shafter. With each ounce of soft drink, Coke tells her, she takes another step closer to skinny stardom. No need to bother with the reality that this same bottle of soda contains more than 16 teaspoons of sugar.
As a California legislator, I represent the vast region between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the nation's fruit, nut and dairy basket that, paradoxically, suffers from some the highest rates of poverty, obesity and diabetes. More than two-thirds of the adults here are overweight or obese, according to a recent UCLA study. Diabetes kills 19 people every week in my valley. Meanwhile, nearly 70 percent of our teen-agers drink one or more sodas a day.
Is it good science to blame soda for the soaring rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in children and adults? If so, do we levy a charge--daresay a "tax"--to discourage soda use and fund programs that promote better health?
These questions were supposed to help frame our nation's health care debate this past year. But Big Soda (soft drink makers, corn syrup producers, fast-food chains) spent at least $18 million on lobbying and millions more in campaign donations to Congress, derailing any plans for a national soda tax.
I believe that California, the first state to ban soda machines from public schools, can do better. Last week, I introduced a bill to tax high fructose corn syrup and other sugars added to soft drinks, fruit juices and sports beverages--a penny for each teaspoon of sweetener. It would generate as much as $1.5 billion a year for parks, recreation and school programs to combat childhood obesity. California, after all, spends $41 billion a year in health care costs related to its overweight citizens.
Even in a state mythically bent toward the cutting edge, passing a soda tax won't be easy. Big Soda will bristle at any suggestion that Christina Aguilera (who has since traded her Coke creds for the Pepsi Generation) is another Joe Camel. Yet the lips of executives at Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's and Domino's Pizza move very much like the lips of the tobacco boys of old, insisting that obesity and diabetes are such a complex brew of nature and nurture that soda consumption can never be teased out as a cause.
More and more science suggests otherwise. Researchers at Rutgers University recently found that drinking soda with high-fructose corn syrup increases the levels of reactive compounds tied to diabetes and cell damage. Loyola University scientists have established a link between women who drink two or more cans of soda a day and early signs of kidney disease. Adults who consume sugar-sweetened beverages on a daily basis are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese, the UCLA study found.
Soda makers counter that immoderate drinking, not the soda itself, is the culprit. But a can of Coke isn't exactly built to take a few sips, return to the refrigerator, sip the next day and then finish the day after. The loss of fizz--the little voice that says "drink it down before it goes flat"--is what makes a soft drink so pernicious. Carbonation becomes the perfect masking agent, fooling our tongues into believing it really isn't 16 teaspoons of sugar we're ingesting.
If we're going to target added sugar, why not target the natural sugars in orange juice and grape juice? The obvious answer is that a can of soda, unlike natural fruit juice, is devoid of any nutritional value. Its own label--carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, caramel coloring, 34.5 milligrams of caffeine--serves as an indictment.
Big Soda is sure to argue that a tax on sugar hurts the poor the most. But this compassion rings hollow when you consider that blacks and Latinos in California, who drink soda at twice the rate of the general population, also suffer the highest incidence of obesity and diabetes.
The day will come, as it did for tobacco, when the illogic of drinking a can of soda each day will be clear: high concentrations of sweetener delivered in deceptive doses make us fat; fat turns into disease; disease becomes early death.
In time, not even the soft drink makers themselves will be cynical enough to turn their product into an agent of dreams.