My View: Why Go After Soda First?

Soda-Tax-Presser (2 of 14)

I keep seeing reference in letters to the editor and Bob Dunning’s columns questioning why the health industry is going after soda or sugar-sweetened beverages and ignoring a whole host of other sugared up products. The first answer is that, from a practical standpoint, you can’t go after everything at once.

So the real question is why attack SSBs first. That was the first question I asked Dr. Harold Goldstein back in December.

Dr. Goldstein told the Vanguard that research has found that half of the rise in diabetes and childhood obesity is attributed to SSBs. So, by attacking soda, we are going after the factor that is the biggest bang for the buck.

The Centers for Disease Control and the American Heart Association and the American Medical Association all consider these beverages to be health threats.

“What makes sugary drinks ‘uniquely harmful’?” they ask. “Sodas, sports drinks, vitamin waters, sweet teas and fruity drinks are the single largest sources of the added sugars we consume each day. One 20-ounce soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar. Imagine putting that much sugar in your morning coffee. Imagine having your kids put that much sugar on their morning cereal!”

In 2005, researchers SJ Nielsen and BM Popkin published a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. They looked at changes in beverage intake between 1977 and 2001 and found, for all age groups, “sweetened beverage consumption increased and milk consumption decreased. Overall, energy intake from sweetened beverages increased 135% and was reduced by 38% from milk, with a 278 total calorie increase.”

A 2010 meta-analysis published in Public Health Nutrition by Gail Woodward-Lopez, et al. found, “Obesity rates and sweetened beverage intake have increased in tandem in the USA.”

They write, “Studies consistently show that higher intake of sweetened beverages is associated with higher energy intake. Energy in liquid form is not well compensated for by reductions in the intake of other sources of energy. Well-designed observational studies consistently show a significant positive relationship between sweetened beverage intake and adiposity. More importantly, several well-conducted randomized controlled trials have shown statistically significant changes in adiposity as a result of corresponding changes in sweetened beverage intake.”

They conclude, “All lines of evidence consistently support the conclusion that the consumption of sweetened beverages has contributed to the obesity epidemic. It is estimated that sweetened beverages account for at least one-fifth of the weight gained between 1977 and 2007 in the US population. Actions that are successful in reducing sweetened beverage consumption are likely to have a measurable impact on obesity.”

As Robb Davis has described it, sugar is everywhere, “what we have in a sugary beverage is we have a delivery system… it’s almost like a cigarette in terms of what it gets, it gets sugar to your pancreas in a hurry.”

There are several different factors at play here. Pan A and Hu FB in 2011 published an article that found huge differences between liquid and solid food in the effects of carbohydrates on satiety. Satiety is the feeling of being full after eating food. It is a huge factor, because one of the problems with liquid drinks is that they do not fill people up like solid food does, and thus many people will consume more liquids.

“The physical form (solid vs. liquid) of carbohydrates is an important component that may affect the satiety process and energy intake. Accumulating evidence suggests that liquid carbohydrates generally produce less satiety than solid forms.”

But there is another factor as well. Not only do liquid drinks fail to satisfy our appetite and therefore increase caloric consumption, but the delivery mechanism masks the amount of sugar we are consuming.

However, there is another huge factor here – as a diabetic I can feel the intake of sugar through liquid far faster and far more profoundly than I can through solids. This is the delivery mechanism that Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis was referring to.

In order to get the sugar from food, the body has to break down the food itself – that takes time and there is fiber and other factors that reduce the consumption of the sugar. On the other hand, drinking liquid sugar is like mainlining it directly into the system, creating an immediate effect and much more efficiently.

Consider the consumption of alcohol. If someone eats food along with the alcohol, or consumes the alcohol after having a full meal, the body ends up not absorbing nearly as much of the alcohol – the intoxication takes a lot longer and one must consume far more alcohol on a full stomach than on an empty stomach.

Sugar acts in much the same way. So for me, while sugar consumption will spike my blood sugar, I can feel the effects of the intake of sugar much more quickly in liquid form than I would even eating a piece of cake.

In my view – and it appears to be the consensus of researchers – liquid sugar is far more dangerous to the body than other forms of sugar.

That is not to say we should stop at attempting to reduce SSB consumption and ignore other forms of sugar, but the totality of the circumstances suggests that soda and SSBs are a problem. It is their rise that appears to be a key driver in obesity and diabetes epidemics. It is the area where the largest increase in sugar consumption has occurred in the last 30 to 40 years.

SSBs do not satisfy appetite and therefore are basically add-ons to other consumption. And the delivery system is far more efficient.

It is fun to try to shift the topic from soda to all sugar. It is what makes for a good conversation. The perfect solution is often the enemy of a good starting place. But based on the research I have read and my own body physiology, I would say that soda and SSBs is the place to start the discussion and, once we have reduced their consumption, we can look at other remedies.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will


    Honest question for you. Would you see a series of completely avoidable taxes ( avoidable since no one has to buy these products) that had the cumulative effect of improving both individual and community health as a bad thing ?  If so, why ?

    1. Barack Palin

      You guys are really hurting your chances of ever getting a soda tax implemented with talk of going after as you say a series of taxes.  You’re just feeding into what everyone was saying, this will just be the start and that once they get a soda tax what will be next?

      1. Tia Will


        You guys are really hurting your chances of ever getting a soda tax implemented with talk of going after as you say a series of taxes.”

        Please note that I asked you a question regarding your reasoning. I have never argued for a series of taxes. I have argued for a multifaceted approach including education, labelling, demonstration gardens and food preparation presentations, linking our local agriculture with our schools and community events, placing our health related infrastructure needs high on our list or priorities. No where have I ever advocated for sequential taxation. That is your interpretation of my  position.

      2. David Greenwald

        I never said a series of taxes. However you continue to ignore that the war on cigarettes was funded  with a revenue stream that was created by the cigarette tax.

  2. hpierce

    In order to achieve that, with a soda tax, the cost per ounce would have to be 5 to 10 times higher than the one cent per ounce proposed to date.  And that wouldn’t affect me much, if at all… the one cent per ounce, I believe it’s “posturing”…

  3. hpierce

    Another thought… alcoholic beverages are based on alcohol content… should not a soda tax be based on sugar content?  Or are all sodas the same?  I don’t know… I really haven’t had much in the way of sodas since I was a kid… not for health reasons, but don’t much care for them…

  4. Tia Will


    Appreciate your point. I think it highlights the multifaceted nature of the problem and the need for a comprehensive approach which will most likely occur if introduced in small steps.

  5. Misanthrop

    I think the question should be how to get this industry to pay the costs associated with the damage their product is doing to health of the people consuming soda with sugar?

    The tobacco and alcohol industries recognize there are problems and we have taxes to try to offset some of the problems associated with those product.

    The sugar industry is still unwilling to recognize how their product contributes to diabetes a disease that is an epidemic in the USA today. Taxing soda to to both offset the damage caused by these products and to dissuade consumption is the right thing to do.

    Check out this video to see how the sugar industry is trying to obfuscate the ill effects of sugar.

    1. Miwok

      The tobacco and alcohol industries recognize there are problems and we have taxes to try to offset some of the problems associated with those product.

      Not sure how old you are, but how many decades did we have to go before this statement was finally true. Never, according to them. Overseas, tobacco products are more deadly and business is growing.

      The Sugar purveyors hired many of the tobacco marketers when the cigarette regulations curtailed it.

      1. Misanthrop

        Exactly my point about tobacco so let’s get over the junk science and start making them pay for the damage they are causing. The alcohol industry has never argued there aren’t problems that taxing can help mitigate. They have only opposed higher taxes because they don’t want to pay.

  6. Alan Miller

    I don’t necessarily disagree with this article.

    However, the word “tax” is never mentioned in the article.

    Yet it is tagged “soda tax”.

    The mailer, which helped educate people and was paid for without soda tax money, but which no one bothered to send until a soda tax was mentioned, never mentions taxes.

    All the children standing by city hall appear to be roughly the same age.

        1. Don Shor

          You have seemed to imply lately that the children at the rally or council meeting were props, perhaps even incapable of making up their own minds about political issues. You even used a disparaging term, which you promptly informed us was not actually disparaging, to describe them. Now you have told us twice that they are the same age, as if this proves something.

          those children all appeared to be the same age. What are the odds? Only children of one age decided to organize themselves. How is the possible.

          All the children standing by city hall appear to be roughly the same age.

          If you don’t know how to answer my question, perhaps you also don’t know why you remarked twice on their ages, and perhaps there is no point in this conversation.
          But I will tell you that when I was just barely adolescent, I was quite capable of making political decisions that I felt were reasonably informed, and that my exactly-same-aged peers and I actually did things about them without the connivance of our parents. Of course, we were facing existential issues like the expansion of a war and the draft lottery. But if you can figure out why you said the things you did, then possibly you can answer my question.

        2. Alan Miller

          Yes, I am saying they are props.  I point out their age because I suspect they came from a few classrooms where the teachers believed in a soda tax and were used by their teachers.  The mono-ageness belies this.

          You can disparage me as if I were calling out individual children by name and insulting them.  I am not.  They can still make up their own minds about politics; they can also take a field trip to City Hall.  I am calling out the teachers who orchestrated this for using the kids as props.  I am not going to research this, and you can say I can’t prove it.  Fine.  I am sticking by my statements; do with that what you will.  End of conversation.

  7. Topcat

    There is an interesting letter to the editor in today’s Enterprise pointing out the problem of the SNAP program (commonly called “food stamps”) allowing SNAP recipients to purchase unhealthy and non-nutritious items including sugary beverages with their benefits.

    If public health advocates really care about improving nutrition and attacking the obesity and diabetes problem, their focus should be on working through our Congressmen and Senators to get the SNAP program modified.

    The focus on a local Davis soda tax seems to me to be like chasing after a fruit fly while ignoring the elephant in the room.

    1. David Greenwald

      I disagree with you here. While I think SNAP is a problem, it’s probably down the list. The correlation numbers on Soda and SSB is far more compelling. Fast food to me is a bigger problem especially with their proliferation in low income areas. And while SNAP is more open, you do have programs like WIC which are very restrictive in terms of food consumption allowable. I’m fine with going to a more WIC styled than SNAP styled program, but to me until we start cutting into the SSB market, we’re really not getting at the true problem and while a local soda tax is only a small piece, it gets the ball moving

    2. Topcat

      …until we start cutting into the SSB market, we’re really not getting at the true problem…

      I agree with you on this point.  The place we can have a real impact on health on a national scale is by addressing the issue of SNAP providing these SSBs to the poor and disabled.

      Perhaps we can start by educating some of those fresh faced young folks who showed up at City Hall about the issue of SNAP providing unhealthy, non-nutritious food?

      1. David Greenwald

        It’s interesting, I took my daughter to the press conference on Monday by necessity, and since then she’s been more conscious about drinking water rather than sugary drinks. So it does have an impact.

  8. Tia Will


    The focus on a local Davis soda tax seems to me to be like chasing after a fruit fly while ignoring the elephant in the room.”

    I like your analogy. However, I see it somewhat differently. Either an insect, I’ll use a mosquito instead of a fruit fly, or an elephant can have devastating consequences. The rampaging elephant will likely have to be captured and confined, sedated or killed. Mosquito control is much less dramatic, but equally necessary. It frequently involves many seemingly minor steps to achieve control. Examples would be use of an individual repellant, avoiding standing water both in large areas such as ponds, but in small containers such as outdoor buckets or empty planters, extending outwards to pesticide use and using sterile males for population control. Some of these steps are sweeping in nature, some are seemingly inconsequential. All can play a critical role although the role of each small step may not be appreciated by some, all are still important for abatement. Every one seems to have their own favorite approach. The most effective approach however is usually to use a broad variety of measures.

      1. hpierce

        Yes, but an individual fruit fly has a VERY short life span, and they tend more to change their collective DNA more frequently…  the reason they are often used in genetic studies…

        Elephants, however have pretty long life spans (except where poaching is common), and they “never forget”…

        Said with trunk in cheek…

  9. Misanthrop

    I can’t really judge how old young people are anymore. I was much better at it when I was, eh well, young. I do know 4 of the 14 people in the photo above who are in their 20’s. I don’t really get why you are so concerned about the age of the young people involved. If anything you should be glad that young people are finding their political voices. Perhaps you are simply looking for a way to disparage people you disagree with on this issue. Seems you have forgotten Voltaires admonition “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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