Soda tax myths: Big Soda Says It’s Your Fault If You’re Fat

by Dana Woldow on April 28, 2014

In Big Soda’s world, the negative health impact of sugary beverages is limited to just obesity. As if obesity were the only consequence of drinking too many sugary drinks, or even the most important one.

In the real world, it’s not how much someone weighs that is the problem – it’s the chronic illnesses linked to soft drink consumption, like diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease, that are the problem.

It is certainly possible to be a person of size and yet be in good health and physically fit. But once we develop diabetes, or kidney disease, we can’t really claim to be healthy.

Big Soda plays the personal responsibility card

That’s why Big Soda prefers to make the public health discussion of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) all about obesity and not about diabetes, heart or kidney disease, metabolic syndrome, pancreatic cancer, or any of the other poor health outcomes, like tooth decay, or increased risk of stroke, that have been scientifically linked to SSB consumption.

By making the conversation all about obesity, Big Soda can simply play the personal responsibility card, and presto! – they are off the hook.

That’s why they claim that maintaining a healthy weight is all about “balance”: eat and drink whatever you want, as much as you want, and then just work it off – “balance it out” – with exercise. Or as the American Beverage Association says,

“Our position is that there are no “good” or “bad” foods. It all comes down to balance. We know that maintaining a healthy weight – whether we consciously think about it or not – comes down to balancing all that we eat and drink with how much activity we get. You can gain weight from anything you eat or drink if you’re not balancing it out. And while sitting at a desk all day does burn some calories, it’s not enough to burn off a day of holiday indulgence all by itself!”

In other words, people gain weight not because they eat or drink too much of the wrong kinds of foods, the kind that are relentlessly marketed to them with billions of dollars of annual spending by beverage and junk food companies, but rather because they are just too darn lazy to get up off their enormous butts and do the kind of exercise it would take to burn off all those extra calories.

See what they did there? They just explained why obesity is our fault, not their fault. There is nothing wrong, they say, with an industry that specifically targets the marketing of nutritionally empty calories to children, low income people, and communities of color. The fault lies with those people – those FAT people – for not taking personal responsibility to “balance out” the extra calories with exercise.

Blaming the victim

For better or worse, weight gain is widely perceived as something people “do” to themselves, whereas diabetes is perceived as something that “happens” to them. Thus it is easy for Big Soda to claim that if you are putting on weight, it is your own fault for not “balancing calories in with calories out.”

This “blame the victim” theme comes directly from the Big Tobacco playbook. For years Big Tobacco insisted that smoking was a personal choice and that smokers, not tobacco companies, were therefore responsible for any negative health outcomes from smoking. Now Big Soda companies tell us that obesity is caused by an individual’s choice not to exercise away excess calories – not by the calories themselves.

Blaming individuals for their own excess weight taps into a deep seated American prejudice against fat people, which thrives in an atmosphere where media reports on obesity frequently feature a “headless fatty” – a photo of a large individual cropped so that the head does not appear, reducing a human being to nothing more than a belly.

Numerous television shows treat obese individuals’ struggles to lose weight as entertainment. Even the name of the popular program “Biggest Loser” encourages viewers to scorn the overweight contestants.

In a society that already shames and blames fat people for being fat, is it any surprise that Big Soda wants to pretend that the only charge leveled against their products is that they contribute to obesity?

But the risk of gaining a few extra pounds is not the major danger of drinking SSBs. Not everyone with a high BMI is going to develop diabetes, and despite what the media and a $20 billion weight loss industry tell us, physical perfection does not look like Kate Moss or the increasing number of “manorexic” male models popping up on fashion runways.

Let’s be clear. The problem with drinking sugary beverages is not that they will make you fat. The problem is that they will make you sick, and no amount of “balancing calories in with calories out” can change that.

Soda shills make the case for warning labels

It is much harder for Big Soda to refute the link between SSB consumption and diabetes, and their feeble attempts to do so have only given strength to the argument in support of putting a warning label on sugary beverages, as has been proposed for California.

As Dr. Jeff Ritterman wrote recently, in response to soda industry advocates’ testimony to the California State Senate Health Committee that no one food or drink leads to poor health:

“Either [soda industry representatives] Mr. Achermann and Ms. Katik are unaware of the science implicating sugary drinks in Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, cancer and obesity, or they are intentionally misleading the senators and the public.

“Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. If a representative of the beverage industry and a registered dietician are unaware of the science linking sugary drinks to these chronic illnesses, can we expect the average busy consumer to understand the harm these beverages cause?”

Perhaps the reason why these soda industry representatives seem confused about the proven link between SSB consumption and poor health is because they only read research funded by their own industry. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “Studies funded by the beverage industry are four to eight times more likely to show a finding favorable to industry than independently-funded studies.”

You know, like finding that “no one food or drink leads to poor health.”

Liars or fools?

You can decide for yourself whether Mr. Achermann and Ms Katik are liars or fools for trying to deny the science that so clearly links SSB consumption with chronic illness, but their apparent ignorance (whether real or professed) clearly underscores the vital need for more consumer education around the health consequences of sugary beverage consumption.

This kind of nutrition education based on sound science is exactly what SF’s proposed soda tax will fund, and what SSB warning labels will help provide. Yet, beverage industry shills, who appear themselves to be poster children for consumer ignorance, oppose these measures.

Big Soda should not be allowed to limit the conversation about the dangers of SSBs to just obesity, nor to exonerate themselves by playing the personal choice card. It’s not about “headless fatties” too lazy to ride a bicycle. It’s about what happens when the soft drink industry spends billions of dollars to market drinks that some doctors refer to as “liquid diabetes” to vulnerable populations.

With the cost of diabetes reaching $245 billion nationwide in 2012 (and exceeding $500 million in San Francisco alone), it’s time Big Soda took some personal responsibility for the damage to public health caused by their products. It’s not just about obesity – it’s about health.

Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverage Companies Friends to the Poor?

Soda Tax Myths: The Arkansas Argument

Soda Tax Myths: Soda Taxes Distract from Real Issues

Truth an Early Casualty in SF’s Soda Tax Fight

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverages Being Unfairly Targeted?

Soda Tax Myths: Do Soda Taxes Reduce Obesity Rates?

Can Big Soda’s Statistics Be Trusted?

Soda Tax Myths: Does Big Soda Support Free Choice?

NY Soda Tax Advocate’s Advice for SF and Berkeley

Heartless Big Soda Terrifies Mom and Pop Businesses

More on debunking soda tax myths.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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