The food finger-waggers were out in full force in Los Angeles yesterday. At a committee hearing more akin to a three-ring circus, state senators “explored” a supposed link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity. The hearing, called by state senator Alex Padilla, featured “Twinkie tax” creator Kelly Brownell and a gaggle of other public health activists lining up to “prove” the link while congratulating the panel for its “historic” hearing. The senate panel members played the part by showing their shock and outrage, with one senator absurdly declaring that “I would like to end the Pepsi Generation.”
Ultimately, of course, this kangaroo court was looking to lay the framework for government intervention. Brownell, true to form, happily served up the goods by offering his pet penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages as an action the legislature should consider.
All the showboating missed the larger picture: Sweetened beverages are not a unique contributor to obesity, and taxing them is not an effective way to slim waistlines. Sweetened beverages account for a very small amount of our caloric intake. A scientific review published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated the evidence of 12 major studies and found virtually no association between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and children’s weight. And a study published online just last week found no association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and youth weight gain over a 5-year period.
How ludicrous were some of yesterday’s proceedings? One senator showed incredulity at the notion that calories from one type of food are the same as calories from another. But it’s true—calories are simply a measure of energy, whether they’re found in apple juice, soda, or a soy latte. And blaming soda for obesity misses the fact that drinks like apple juice actually have more calories per ounce than soda.
If lawmakers really want to get serious about rising obesity rates, a good place to start would be educating people about balancing calories “in” with calories “out,” and making sure that everyone gets enough of the latter. Singling out one kind of beverage or food for a public flogging scores easy PR points, but it’s not going to make a dent in the public’s pants size. You’d think a publicity-adrenaline junkie like Padilla would know how to tone it down every so often. But you’d be wrong.