The great soda debate

As of next year, schools in Ontario will no longer sell chocolate, gum, candy, licorice, energy bars, pop and popsicles on school property. It’s about time. After all, what are we saying to kids when we offer them junk food at school and then lecture to them about the food pyramid?

Weirdly, schools will be allowed to break the ban for 10 days a year. I guess it’s a concession to the naysayers and the many school fundraisers based on selling sweets, though surely there are other equally successful ways to raise money that don’t involve shilling cookie dough and chocolate almonds (full disclosure: I love chocolate almonds).

In any case, this move, of course, is part of a larger policy-based effort to deal with the obesity crisis that faces much of the Western world. Governments and school boards are being enlisted to introduce policies like banning junk from schools and imposing taxes on unhealthy food and drink.

But it’s a hard slog, especially when it comes to challenging powerful interests like those in the soda industry. Just how hard was explored in a piece in the New York Times this week. Faced with a proposed pop tax in the District of Colombia,

“The soda industry…is fighting back with newspaper and radio advertisements, among other things. It says a tax would most hurt “hard-working, low- and middle-income families, elderly residents and those living on fixed incomes” and would destroy jobs. Ellen Valentino, an industry official, recently told The Washington Post that companies would spend “whatever it takes” to make their case.”

Egad. So what they’re saying is that low-income people drink more soda because it’s cheap— thank-you subsidized corn and its sweet progeny high fructose corn syrup—and even though it’s making people unhealthy, burdening the health care system and rotting our teeth, we should be allowed to exercise our god-given right to drink as much as we like without being taxed for it. (Check out this chart from the NYT that shows how the cost of pop continues to decrease while the cost of fresh fruit and veg rises steeply.)

The Mexican government said essentially the same thing in 2006 when politicians quashed a tax on soda pop claiming it punished the poor. (Mexicans, apparently, now drink more Coke than milk—with the result being nearly one in 10 Mexicans lives with diabetes and the cost to Mexico to treat that disease is about $15 billion US a year.)

The US Senate is also considering a soda tax to help pay for health care reform. Of course, with the soda industry willing to spend “whatever it takes,” it’s not likely to be easy to win this battle—but it’s worthwhile to recall it wasn’t easy to win the fight against tobacco, either.

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