Unlike a financial collapse or a terrorist attack, the obesity crisis our nation now faces was not triggered by a shocking event, and without a catalyzing shock to trigger a collective sense of urgency, it is nearly impossible to spark political action. As a result, the political response to the nation’s most significant health and economic threat falls somewhere between complete paralysis and utter disregard.
Over the last several decades, physicians and public health experts have noticed a steady increase in obesity-related diseases. But there hasn’t been a significant catalyst for action. Meanwhile, the corporate machinery profiting from the manufacture and marketing of high-fat, high-sugar, low-nutrient foods has insulated itself from political pressure, wrapping its marketing in personal choice to cloak their aggressive profiteering.
In the 1990s, knowing that Americans would not tolerate rising asthma, emphysema and cancer rates, the tobacco industry fought against smoking bans and tobacco taxes, arguing that tobacco taxes disproportionally hurt minority businesses and smoking bans would erase the economic gains made by African Americans and other minorities. They donated large sums of money to civil rights organizations like the NAACP, in a cynical effort to neutralize their formidable organizing power and moral authority. Remarkably, they were successful… for a while.
Eventually, the playbook failed. Communities organized and city after city and state after state adopted smoking bans and raised tobacco taxes. In the years since, smoking has steadily declined and emphysema and lung cancer rates have followed. Teen smoking hit an all-time low in 2012. We are a healthier nation, and minority businesses have not suffered as a result.
Last year, as the idea of implementing soda taxes heated up, I noticed the junk drink industry dusting off the same playbook. The same checks were written to the same PR groups and civil rights organizations. The same disingenuous claims were repeated about the detrimental effects on minority-owned business. And in a couple of places in California, the arguments were effective—initiatives to raise soda taxes were defeated. But despite winning a few early battles, I predict that history will repeat itself and they will lose the war.
This year’s Field-The California Endowment Childhood Obesity Prevention Survey showed that California voters overwhelmingly understand the linkage between sugary sodas and increased health problems. Statewide, 75% believe regularly consuming junk drinks like Coke, Pepsi or Mountain Dew “definitely increases” a person’s chance of becoming overweight or obese.
As encouraging as those poll numbers are, there is still work to be done. Only four in ten voters (42%) believe that sugar-rich energy drinks like Red Bull have the same impact on obesity. And barely one in four (26%) recognize the risk from sports drinks. Sports drinks are marketed as part of an active or athletic lifestyle, but in truth, our bodies can’t tell the difference between Gatorade and Coke.
The survey also showed strong support for efforts to tax junk drinks, as long as voters understand the specific reasons for the tax. A majority (53%) oppose taxing sugary drinks in the abstract, but when they are told the revenue would fund school nutrition and physical activity programs, 68% support the policy.
Despite the questionable alliances between civil rights organizations and the junk drink industry, support for using a junk drink tax to support health-focused policies was especially high in minority populations. Support among Latinos and African Americans doubles when voters understand the purpose of the tax is to fight childhood obesity.
When asked to balance children’s health against a small tax on junk drinks, voters aren’t falling for recycled arguments. They don’t believe that selling a 32-ounce soda is the key to empowering minority-owned businesses. They support policies that bring more fresh produce into low-income neighborhoods. They believe in funding for improvements to school athletic fields, physical education facilities and playgrounds, and they overwhelmingly support limiting junk food and junk drinks in schools, youth centers and after-school programs.
As we work towards building healthy communities across California, The California Endowment is particularly focused on “dunking the junk:” encouraging kids to make choices that replace junk food and junk drinks with healthier alternatives. We are raising awareness of the unique harm junk drinks pose to our children’s health, and from the results of this year’s Field-The California Endowment Survey, it’s clear that Californians are getting the message.
Just as we look back now with disbelief when we think about big tobacco’s last-ditch efforts to push back against healthy public policy changes in the 1990s, I hope that we’ll be looking back 20 years from now, trying to remember a time when students stopped at the Coke machine between classes. Obesity will not defeat us, and neither will the junk food industry.
Ed’s Note: Anthony B. Iton, M.D., J.D., MPH, is Senior Vice President of Healthy Communities at The California Endowment.