It's time to start naming names. So, here goes: Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Kelly Clarkson, Elton John, Lebron James, David Beckham and Michael Jordan. These are just a few of the athletes and singers who've recently lent (well, OK, sold) their name, cachet, and influence to promote soda, a product that's a key culprit in making our kids sick. Ads featuring celebrities touting bubbly beverages are everywhere, like an endless series of public dis-service announcements. Why don't we react the same way we would if they were peddling cigarettes or alcohol?
After all, we now know that excess sugar consumption is, along with smoking and drinking, one of the greatest risk factors for chronic disease. Sugar consumption has tripled in the past fifty years, and we've seen a corresponding rise in obesity, along with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other diet-induced illnesses. When it comes to the childhood obesity epidemic, soda is Public Enemy #1.
As Laura Schmidt, a medical sociologist who co-authored the recent report The Toxic Truth About Sugar for the science journal Nature, explained to CNN, "One of the saddest effects of sugar overconsumption is to dampen the natural hormones that tell kids' bodies when they've eaten enough, leading them to feel hungry even as they overeat."
The beverage industry insists that soda is being unfairly scapegoated; the real problem, they say, is that kids just aren't getting enough exercise. Soda spokespersons are fond of pointing out that carbonated beverages have been around for over two hundred years. So, why blame soda for an epidemic that's only a few decades old?
Well, consider those iconic, downright dainty 8-ounce bottles of Coke, now replaced by the outlandishly oversized Big Gulp, which weighs in at as much as 64 ounces. Let's also factor in an explosion of availability, vending machines everywhere you turn, prime supermarket shelves piled high and aggressive advertising towards African-Americans and Hispanics. And the same sugary drinks that were once an occasional treat are now sucked down at an astonishing rate of 45 gallons per person per year. That's 42 pounds of sugar.
Soda is the single largest source of calories for teens and, not coincidentally, it's the "food" product most marketed to children (to the tune of $500 million dollars annually), who are so easily influenced, and love to imitate their favorite celebrities. Couple this with the industry's mandate to increase sales... i.e. double consumption!, as they launch a new round of soda wars. Well, Houston, we have a problem.
Of course, parents have the primary responsibility for teaching their kids healthy habits and protecting them from harm. But what parent, no matter how well-intentioned, could possibly compete with the infinite celebrity firepower the soda industry unleashes to captivate impressionable taste buds and cultivate lifelong brand loyalty? Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and Mean Joe Green are just a few of the famous folks who helped to make soda-guzzling seem essential to the good life. Popular television shows are compounding this fizzy folly by brazenly embedding the product throughout their programs. American Idol, the worst of the offenders, sells out its fan base nightly.
A generation ago, celebrities invited young people to share a smoke, be cool with Kool or get macho with Marlboro -- a deplorable misuse of celebrity clout that we look back on with regret. Clark Gable did it. Spencer Tracy, John Wayne and Bette Davis too. They didn't know any better at the time. But we do know now the terrible consequences of cigarettes -- and of soda too. With childhood obesity rates tripling since 1980, it's time for an "all hands on deck" moment.
So, here's the ask: in the midst of an epidemic that threatens to kill far too many of our kids, we appeal to the common sense and decency of our celebrities and ask them -- no, beg them -- to stop accepting soda and sugary drink endorsements.
It's going to take a major societal shift to get our children healthy again and we are going to need all the role models we have to help make it happen.
If you are a public figure who possesses the kind of influence over kids that a soda company craves, think twice before saying yes, and then say no. Join the California Center for Public Health Advocacy's Kick the Can campaign and help give our kids a fighting chance at a healthy future.