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Helene Pavlov, M.D. Headshot

Put Your Soda Guns Away -- Rethink the Soft Drink Business

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The subject of obesity, family-size bags of chips and general health have been the topic of many of my postings. My previous blog, which described morbidly-obese parents giving individual family-size bags of chips to each of their two little girls, produced responses from many readers expressing their righteous indignation stating that people should be allowed to eat as they wish. I agree. The philosophy of "live and let live as long as it doesn't hurt others" is an excellent philosophy to live by. Unfortunately, however, obesity does hurt others and is costly to both the individual and to society. Obesity is a leading cause of diabetes and overall poor health. Physical examinations and imaging examinations can be difficult to perform on the morbidly obese, which means detection of preventable chronic diseases can be delayed making treatment more difficult and more expensive.

Health care costs negatively affect the economy and costs are rising. Clearly, the causes of rising health care costs are multifactorial. Many point fingers at physician charges, unnecessary tests and procedures, hospital charges, etc. I do not defend these targets. However, a major key to controlling health care costs is the prevention of illness, along with early detection and treatment.

We are what we eat, and without self-control, we can eat ourselves to death. Even though death and illness are inevitable, prevention can help prolong lives and improve the quality of life as well as helping cost containment of health care dollars. The CDC reports that "medical costs associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion" in 2008. Mark Bittman of the New York Times called sugar "the tobacco of the 21st century." He believes that we are so used to drinking soda that the dangers are not clearly seen.

The data and nationwide health programs that are being launched reflect emerging awareness by the younger generation. This shift to health awareness by younger people is focused on the increased communications of the dangers of drugs, smoking, salt and now, sugar. It is encouraging to see people, especially young children, becoming aware of personal health decisions and that out-of-control eating is linked to poor health. According to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the school district in Faulkton, S.D. is one of the first in the country to institute a ban on sodas and other sugary drinks being available in vending machines and has replaced sugary drinks with water, low fat milk and fruit juices as well as sports drinks in order to help control childhood obesity.

These efforts of portion control and availability send a strong message to both consumers and to the soda industry. While some people may see these actions as an invasion of their "rights," there is a parallel here to tobacco use. In the '50s, smoking was the "in thing." Smoking was marketed to youngsters as sexy and a sign of maturity and confidence. New marketing campaigns to ban large portions of sugar-laden soda is a wake-up call to the dangers of sugar and to the importance of portion control. If nothing else, such a ban forces the consumer to stand up to get a refill, which may allow time for the individual to exercise some self-control as well as actually get a moment or two of physical exercise.

Children mimic parents' behavior. It is important to make people of all ages aware of the dangers of sugar-laden diets and or little to no exercise. Consumer education is key. Educated consumers can send a valuable message to some of the offenders, e.g., Coke, Pepsi, etc., to rethink what is being manufactured and marketed. The soft drink industry should be made to realize that sales of their product are dependent on people, healthy people; therefore, it is good for their business if they help keep their customers healthy. Sick people do not consume sugary drinks; sick people consume health care dollars.

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