We’ve all seen it. Kids and grown-ups leaving the movie theater concession stand with soft drinks in containers so large that one often takes both hands to carry. When I try to discuss the health problems this causes, my family and friends dismiss my protests with variations of “the-occasional-splurge-is-okay” retort. Well it’s not okay! Each super-sized soda sold in movie theaters contains 96 to 174 grams of sweeteners, which, when consumed, is equivalent to eating 22-44 teaspoons of sugar…in a single serving. How can consuming that much sugar in one drink be okay?
This so bothered former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he shepherded in a citywide ban on the sale of sugary beverages over 16 ounces in size. Even at that size, these sodas may have as much as 12 teaspoons of sugar in them. No matter, though. The New York City Court of Appeals struck down that ban in June of 2014, saying that the City had overreached its regulatory authority in issuing it.
The next match in the battle against sugar abuse may be staged in California where two legislators reacted to a new UCLA study released this month with proposals for a 2-cents-per-ounce health impact fee on sugar sweetened sodas and other drinks. To be sure, the chief finding of that study is frightening. Nearly half (46%) of all adults in California –about 13 million people– are estimated to have undiagnosed diabetes or pre-diabetes, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes, which is often life-threatening and in most cases completely preventable. But is a sugar content tax the best abatement strategy to deploy?
The cost implications to society are indeed significant. The lifetime medical cost for treating a person with diabetes is about $125,000 more than for someone who does not have diabetes. Additionally, the average per capita cost of hospital stays for diabetic patients is nearly $2,200 more than stays for non-diabetic patients. Factor in a rate of increase for the incidence of this disease in the population at 100 percent per decade and ouch; you have the makings of a nightmare for health insurance underwriters and consumers, though the latter, including those of us who restrict our sugar consumption, won’t see it coming until smacked in the face with higher premiums.
The enormity of this crisis notwithstanding, let’s not rush to impose a sugar content tax on the foods we purchase. After all, sugar in and of itself is neither unhealthy nor dangerous to consume. And such a tax would be regressive and therefore unfair. Rather, let’s arm consumers with knowledge about overconsumption by placing clear and compelling labels on food products with added sugar. I’m thinking about that super-sized soda at the concession stand. Forget small labels with grams. In place of alluring pictures of super heroes surrounding the surface of the container, how might a consumer respond to a large label that says “You are about to drink 44 teaspoons of sugar?” In fact, the 56-ounce Big Gulp container is big enough to put 44 pictures of teaspoons with sugar on it as well. If I needed this type of coaching, a label like this would most certainly deter me. It probably would cause most adults to at least consider buying a smaller-size fountain drink containing less sugar. Not so much with kids perhaps. We may need to be more controlling for children; maybe install age-related restrictions on the purchase of food products based on sugar content?