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Two top US medical groups call for soda taxes and advertising curbs

Two of the country’s leading medical groups have issued a call to arms against the soda industry, urging legislators to embrace taxes, warning labels and advertising restrictions to deter young people from consuming sugary beverages.

Describing sweetened drinks as “a grave health threat to children and adolescents,” the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association issued a set of bold policy recommendations they say are necessary to stem the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related illnesses responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths and billions of dollars in annual health care costs.

While these groups routinely warn against high sugar consumption, this marks the first time the AAP has broadcast its policy suggestions.

The organizations say such measures are needed if the US is to adhere to federal dietary guidelines recommending that added sugars make up less than 10 percent of the total calories consumed by children and adolescents.

The figure now stands at 17 percent, with nearly half of that coming from sugary sports drinks, carbonated sodas and fruit-flavoured beverages, according to studies. The guidelines do not include sugars found naturally in 100 percent fruit juices.

“Sugary drinks are empty calories and they are the low-hanging fruit in the fight against childhood obesity,” said Dr Sheela Magge, a pediatric endocrinologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center who took part in crafting the recommendations.

The statement, more than two years in the making, reflects the growing sense of urgency among doctors — and the frustration over what many describe as government inaction in the face of a national health emergency.

“I’ve seen 2-year-olds with fatty liver disease and teenagers with Type 2 diabetes. These are diseases we used to see in their grandparents. It’s frustrating because as pediatricians we feel like we’re doing everything we can, but it’s hard to compete with a $800-million-a-year marketing strategy by the soda industry.”

Dr Natalie Muth, California pediatrician and a lead author of the recommendations.

The recommendations embrace a range of initiatives, some of them untested — like federal curbs on junk food advertising — and measures like soda taxes that have been effective in reducing soda consumption.

Most are likely to face resistance from the powerful beverage industry, which has fought back vigorously against any government efforts to dampen consumption of sugar-laden drinks.

Still, some of the policy suggestions would be relatively easy to achieve, like increased funding for public education programs to highlight the dangers of excess sugar consumption or changes to the federal food program that serves millions of poor children.

The Supplemental Nutrition Program, or SNAP, pays for 20 million servings of sugary drinks a day, at an annual cost of $4 billion. Barring recipients from using benefits to buy unhealthy beverages, researchers say, could prevent 52,000 deaths from Type 2 diabetes.

Other small, symbolic steps they recommend could have an outsize impact, like encouraging health care institutions to remove sugary drinks from cafeteria menus and vending machines.

“As with the ban on tobacco, leadership by hospitals and health plans to eliminate the sale of sugary drinks can improve the health of their employees, increase public awareness about the contribution of sugary drinks to obesity, and thereby change social norms,” the medical groups said.

William Dermody, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, said sugary drinks were being unfairly blamed for soaring rates of obesity and diabetes, and he said there were better ways to discourage sugar consumption among children.

The industry, he noted, was focused on creating healthier products, including bottled water and low-sugar drinks, part of an industry initiative to cut by 20 percent the calorie count in beverages by 2025.

“America’s beverage companies believe there’s a better way to help reduce the amount of sugar consumers get from beverages and it includes putting parents in the driver’s seat to decide what’s best for their children,” he said in a statement.

Source: New York Times

Read the AAP, AHA policy statement here

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