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Thirsty for Change at the National Soda Summit


For public health advocates fighting to reduce obesity and diabetes, reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is at the top of the to-do list. At this week’s National Soda Summit, many of our Leaders traded ideas on how to make that happen.

This year’s Soda Summit, organized by our friends at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., is the second such event. It follows the inaugural summit from 2012. Representatives from the public health, medical and academic communities around the United States and beyond gathered on the first day of the summit for panel discussions on the latest science surrounding soda’s harmful health effects, the fight to institute soda taxes, and other initiatives to reduce consumption of sugary beverages.

“We’re on the right side of history because we stand behind the science,” CSPI Director Michael Jacobson said in remarks opening the first day of the summit Wednesday, June 4.

During the first discussion of the day, panelists tackled the question of “Why Pick on Soda?” noting the explosion of two trends alongside each other: Soda serving sizes—which have grown from 7 ounces in the 1950s to 20-ounce bottles today—and the rate of diabetes. Getting people to exercise isn’t enough, speakers agreed, when it’s this easy to consume so many calories in one bottle or can. Panelist Claire Wang of Columbia University put the problem into perspective by applying it to the streets of New York: To burn off the calories in one 12-ounce soda, you would have to walk from Columbus Circle to Harlem.

Over the course of the day, participants pinpointed some encouraging trends. City governments and health-care facilities have reduced access to sugar-sweetened beverages in vending machines. More broadly, they noted, sales of major soft-drink brands are falling, while consumption of water is increasing.

But health activists’ battle is not won. “Humans were not designed to consume liquid sugar!” panelist Harold Goldstein, founding director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a Leader, noted. He added that due to current consumption rates of sugar, about a third of children born this year in his home state will someday develop diabetes.

Asked whether a soda tax, one of the major initiatives discussed by the panelists, is regressive (meaning it affects the poor more than the wealthy), Goldstein cited research finding that lower-income Californians support the idea more than those in higher income brackets. Fellow panelist Alejandro Calvillo gave a presentation on the recent implementation of a soda tax in his home country of Mexico, noting that policymakers are hoping for a reduction in consumption of ten percent or more.

Between discussions, panelists got moving with stretch breaks. To wrap up the day, young poets performed spoken-word pieces about the impact of sugary drinks on the health of minority communities. The summit continues with a second day of discussions on Thursday, June 5.

Donna Brutkoski authored this report.