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Jeff Ritterman, MD Headshot

Convenience Stores: C Is for Conundrum

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I can remember riding my bike to pick up milk, bread and a pack of Kent cigarettes for my mom (she stopped and is alive and well at 92) from the local convenience store bordering my suburban neighborhood. It was the mid-1950s, and little did I know that convenience stores would mushroom and become a major part of American commerce for the next 60 years.

The number of convenience stores, known as C-stores in the food trade, increased markedly in the 1980s as Coke, Pepsi and the junk food manufacturers embraced a strategy of catering to immediate consumption. Part of the strategy is to attract the teenage market by placing the stores close to schools and selling single drinks. The idea is to develop brand loyalty during these impressionable years and then to have a customer for life.

The strategy has worked well. Teens have markedly increased their liquid sugar intake and with it their rates of obesity and diabetes and their risks for heart disease. No one in the food or beverage industry seems to be concerned that greater availability of soda and snack foods has contributed to the obesity tsunami.

Sodas and snack foods are given the best shelf space in these stores and also provide most of the revenue. In "Salt, Sugar, Fat," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss claims, "to nutritionists, these stores are to obesity what drug dens are to the crack epidemic."

Given the history of C-stores as outlets for the beverage industry's sugary concoctions and the increasing medical knowledge implicating liquid sugar as a cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart attacks, it is likely that C-stores will come under increasing public scrutiny and perhaps regulation.

The shopkeepers who own and run these stores are struggling to make a living.
Clearly these shopkeepers are on a collision course with the clear public health need to markedly limit sugary beverage consumption. Is it possible to save our teens from the adverse health impacts of sugary drink consumption without destroying the livelihood of the C-store shopkeeper? What kind of transformation of the C-store would be needed for this to happen?

Perhaps now is a good time to begin planning a smooth glide path to go from the unhealthy and unsustainable present system to one in which health and sustainability are placed first. Mexico has done the world a service in adopting both a soda tax and a junk food tax. For the very first time, the public health of the people has trumped the profits of major corporations.

Could we transform our local convenience stores into outlets for locally grown produce, eggs, poultry, meat and dairy? During World War II our Victory Gardens grew lots of locally consumed produce. What if we subsidized local and organic how far could we go?

Whatever the best path, clearly taking our heads out of the sand and beginning to address economic transformation of our convenience stores and much else for that matter, is needed and needed urgently.

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