Op-ed: Soda kills — we need to vote ‘yes’ on Measure D

In two months, Berkeley voters will decide whether ours will be the first U.S. city to enact a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (or tie with San Francisco which has a similar measure on the ballot). When I heard about the soda tax, “Measure D,” I immediately cast aside most of my to-do list (cleaning the oven survived the purge but colonoscopy did not) and volunteered to help the Healthy Child Coalition trounce Big Soda.

I was an easy recruit for team Berkeley for one simple reason: sugary drinks are the number one source of calories for low-income Americans.

Let the horribleness of that fact sink in for a moment: instead of eating real food filled with protein and calcium and vitamins and anti-oxidants, a lot of poor kids are filling their bellies with a slurry of sugar and chemicals that contains 240 calories but nary an ounce of nutrition. A 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew has, I kid you not, 19 teaspoons of sugar. That’s more than six times the amount of sugar the American Heart Association recommends young children consumer in an entire day. No big surprise then that one of three kids are on track to develop diabetes in their lifetimes (for African-American and Latino kids, it’s closer to one out of two).

Soda has two things going for it. It’s pleasurable, and it’s cheap. While the cost of fruits and vegetables has increased 24% since the 1980s, the cost of soda has dropped by 27%. That’s because corn growers (think corn syrup) have raked in $90 billion in federal government subsidies over the past 20 years. As for subsidies for fruit and vegetable farmers, you can add them up on one amputated finger ($689 million for apples).

Big Soda is immensely profitable and has plenty of cash to spend marketing its deadly products to our kids, $500 million a year to be exact. I don’t use the word “deadly” hyperbolically. Diabetes in the U.S. is responsible for 74,000 deaths and 37 million hospital and doctors’ visits a year. In addition to diabetes, sugar is now known to cause heart disease, fatty liver disease, hypertension, obesity and stroke. Once upon a time, drinking a Coke seemed a harmless enough activity, but now we know better. Soda kills.

Public policy is just now beginning to catch up with science. The FDA is about to unveil a new nutrition label that shows how much added sugar packaged foods contain. California came close this spring to passing a law that would require a warning label on sugar-sweetened beverage. And major media outlets such as National Geographic, Salon and Mother Jones have published exposés of the dangers of high sugar intake and how Big Sugar and Big Soda have manipulated and hidden evidence of how harmful their products are.

If corporate denial sounds like déjà vu all over again, you’re right: Big Sugar’s deceptions are all too reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s scandalous 50-year disinformation campaign. As with tobacco, the truth about sugar is finally prevailing, better late than never.

Cigarette taxes and public education campaigns reduced smoking rates dramatically, and a penny-an-ounce soda tax is expected to deter the consumption of sugary drinks, especially among kids for whom an extra twenty cents a pop can give pause. (The tax is actually imposed on distributors, not consumers, but the distributors are likely to pass the cost to consumers). No matter who pays the tax, its existence serves to stigmatize soda so that people become aware that it’s a public health menace. And the revenue generated by the tax can be used for nutrition-education programs that can at least begin to counter the marketing ploys that prey on the naiveté of young minds.

We can’t let dire diabetes projections come to pass. Join Berkeley’s campaign to take down Big Soda by donating or volunteering at BerkeleyvsBigSoda.com. And learn more about the health effects of sugar by attending the Soda Series, a local series of talks and films that runs through October 9.

One day, we’ll look back at Measure D as the beginning of the end of Big Soda. As with public radio, wheelchair curb cuts, and public school integration, we’ll be proud that Berkeley did it first. See you at the victory party.

Erica Etelson is the producer of the short hit video, “How Much Sugar?”

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Erica Etelson is a Berkeley Unified parent and producer of the short hit video, "How Much Sugar." The views expressed here are her own.