The Latest Misguided Attack on Sugary Drinks

Wheat, soy, dairy, and seafood make some people sick. Should we tax or ban those foods as a result?


There may be no more contested food policy issue today than whether sugar-sweetened drinks like soda have expanded America's waistlines—and whether government has the authority to limit access to these drinks if they're found to be a culprit.

The latest research to address the issue came out late last week in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). A trio of studies published there (found herehere, and here) conclude that sugar-sweetened drinks are a major driver of what New York Times food opinion writer Mark Bittman has taken to mischaracterizing as an "obesity pandemic." Furthermore, the studies suggest some segment of the population has a genetic predisposition toward obesity that is triggered by consuming sugary drinks.

While none of the three studies themselves address whether government has the authority to limit access to these beverages, that hasn't stopped many—including at least one study author—from suggesting the studies virtually mandate a host of policy prescriptions.

The Times reports, for example, that one of the studies' authors, Dr. David Ludwig, "said the finding only underscored the need for public policy changes," including "long-term, permanent changes in the environment for children."

"These randomized, controlled studies… provide a strong impetus to develop recommendations and policy decisions to limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages," writes Dr. Sonia Caprio in a NEJM editorial published alongside the studies.

Even the Association Press jumped on the bandwagon. "That adds weight to the push for taxes, portion limits like the one just adopted in New York City, and other policies to curb consumption of soda, juice drinks and sports beverages sweetened with sugar," writes the AP's Maryilynn Marchione.

Opponents of increased regulations—a group that includes many scientists, academics, policymakers, and advocates—note in reply that even as sales of full-calorie sodas decreased during the first decade of this century by more than 10 percent, obesity rates continued their rise. They also note that during that same period Americans drank 39 percent less added sugar in soda.

As an opponent of increased regulations, I find these latter scientific points noteworthy. But I also believe that even if sugar-sweetened drinks turn out to be virtually everything their opponents claim, people still have a right to buy and drink these beverages—just as much, as I argued in a recent Bloggingheads debate, as they have a right to buy a Big Mac. After all, we don't have a right to free speech or to travel from one state to another because speech or travel has been proven by the scientific community to promote good health.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, I was to take at face value the assertions of those who claim the NEJM studies justify some combination of sugary drink taxes and bans.

There is still this problem: The solutions these advocates propose won't likely solve the problem of obesity. For example, studies have suggested taxes will have little or no impact on obesity. And not one person has (to the best of my knowledge) even attempted to argue that soda bans would have any specific impact, either—unless one counts "sending a message" or "creating a debate" as conditions precedent to weight loss.

There is also the issue of a genetic predisposition, which again is one finding of the studies. Many people are genetically predisposed to certain food allergies—including soy, dairy, gluten, nuts, and seafood—and food intolerances. I have never seen a researcher or AP journalist like Marchione argue seriously that the widespread impact of food allergies "adds weight to the push for taxes" on wheat, tofu, and shrimp. Yet if one were to buy the argument of those calling for taxes and bans to combat consumption of sugary drinks in light of the NEJM studies, one would have to accept the idea of taxing society writ large based largely on the outcomes of what these researchers argue is a genetic condition.

Instead of a dystopian future of gene-based taxes and bans that likely won't curb obesity, government, industry, and consumers can help curb obesity in other ways.

The federal government should stop subsidizing sugar and corn (which gets turned into the sweetener high fructose corn syrup). Ending these subsidies is and always has been good policy—whether these sweeteners are unhealthy or not.

Beverage makers—who have every reason to believe that questions about public health are sure to continue spurring calls for new health regulations—are already looking ahead to what may become the next mainstream, calorie-free sweetener. 

And consumers can do what they've always been able to do—take hold of their own health and well-being by making those food choices they believe are right for them.