The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy recently released Still Bubbling Over, a report showing that the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, including soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks, is increasing among Latino adolescents living in California. This is troubling both for Latinos as well as for all of California.
When it comes to overconsumption of sugar, we are navigating treacherous waters. Never in recorded history have we had such high rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents. Nearly 40 percent of California youth are overweight, and one third of all children born in 2000, including one out of every two Latino children, will develop diabetes sometime in their lives.
In addition to diabetes, obesity can lead to heart disease, stroke, and multiple forms of cancer. That these are also the leading causes of death and cost of medical care among Latinos in California forces us to examine what we can do to avert the disaster at hand.
The link between sugary beverages and damage to health is clear. But, those who profit from their sales would have us believe that drinking sugary beverages represents freedom of choice, and leads to happiness, increased sex appeal, and a good life.
Their pitch distorts reality. If youth could truly weigh the lifelong impacts from overconsumption of sugary beverages—the social, emotional, and physical health burdens like depression, stroke or heart attack, amputated limbs, insulin injections, kidney dialysis, — they would think twice about drink choice. Latinos need to be better informed about health choices, but we also need more honesty in advertising.
Some people argue that sensible public health strategies to reduce the consumption of sugary beverages and improve opportunities for better health infringes on our personal freedoms. But when we examine the county comparisons in Still Bubbling Over, we see that not all places are equal with regard to freedom of choice or opportunities. Neighborhoods with a higher proportion of lower income people and people of color tend to have fewer places to buy healthy food, but more places to buy junk food and sugary drinks.
Compounding the problem, they also have fewer parks and places to exercise, and less reliable transportation, meaning less opportunity to counteract empty calories from sugary beverages. In some places the local water is undrinkable because of contaminants, but it is cheaper to buy a soda than to buy a bottle of water. Not only are people, many of them Latinos, living under these circumstances especially vulnerable to overconsuming sugar, for them the easy choice is often not the healthy choice. Or worse, there is no choice.
Efforts to reduce consumption of sugary beverages in elementary schools seem to be working. But we have a long way to go, particularly with adolescents. A problem working against the effort is that a few prominent Latino personalities and organizations, lavishly financed by the profits from sugary beverage sales, promote sugary beverages. Unwitting young people may still look up to them. However, we aim to grow awareness about the greater good: reduce consumption of sugary beverages, promote healthy nutrition and physical activity and the policies and conditions to support these.
We call on parents to recognize and teach young people about the dangers of drinking sugary beverages. We call on celebrity spokespersons for sugary beverages to understand that they are marketing chronic disease and harming entire communities. We call on industry to cease advertising unhealthy products to children and adolescents. And we call on policymakers to fund community-wide health efforts such as after school programs, physical education in schools, healthy school food programs, improvements in parks and recreation programs, and access to safe drinking water.