Thursday, February 24, 2011
The “Sweet Surprise” website features a photo series of impish, multi-cultural children. There’s the adorable Asian girl, sitting in front of a short stack of pancakes drizzled with syrup and dotted with berries. The freckle-faced white kids dipping fresh fruit slices in what appears to be yogurt. The smiling black youngster looking up as his mom pours milk from a glass bottle into his bowl of cereal. The Hispanic family sitting at a feast, the little girl munching a slice of watermelon, with platters of corn bread, barbecue ribs and a bowl of pickles artfully arranged on the table.
There is no obesity here. No pricking of the fingers to test blood sugar levels. No balancing how to pay for insulin and needles with food and rent. With the exception of the pancakes – and hell, even those might be whole grain – and the cereal (although they appear to be Cheerios, which is about as close to real as it gets in the processed cereal world) – all of the food appears to be just that: real food.
What you don’t see on the site: Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Sprite. Arizona Ice Tea. Snapple Ice Tea. The “fluid replacement beverages” clan of AllSport, Powerade, Quickkick and 1st Ade.
So keep this in mind on Friday, when Assemblyman Bill Monning introduces AB 669, that he’s not a horrible monster out to destroy the very fabric of the family meal as we know it. He’s trying to save us from ourselves.
And apparently, despite what the Sweet Surprises folks (actually, lets call them what they are – the Corn Refiners Association, led by Agri-giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Archers Daniel Midland) is trying to peddle, saving is exactly what we need.
Monning’s bill would levy a penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages such as soda, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened teas. The California Board of Equalization estimates it would generate $1.7 billion annually, which would go to a fund to help educate schoolchildren and go to nonprofits fighting health problems related to obesity.
“This is a public health response to a public health epidemic,” Monning says. And then he pulls out copy of a New England Journal of Medicine article about the perils of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, and the possible benefits of such a tax.
A similar bill died last year before it made it anywhere near Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.
First, some numbers that show how bad the problem is getting. As of January 2011, 28.5 million children and adults in the U.S. have diabetes. Another 79 million have prediabetes, and 1.9 million new cases were diagnosed in people ages 20 and older in 2010. Nearly 12 percent of Hispanics have diabetes, and just more than 7 percent of whites do as well.
And the toll on children is increasing too. About 215,000 people younger than age 20 currently have either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.
The costs, financial and physical, are astronomical, with the total cost of diabetes in the U.S. in 2007 (the most recent year for which numbers were available) reaching $174 billion for diagnosed diabetes, and $218 billion overall when undiagnosed diabetes is included in the mix. Left unchecked, it’s an eventual death sentence that first can cause blindness, damage to the heart and kidneys and gruesome problems with circulation. Karen Smith, spokeswoman for Monterey County’s Health Department, says on Natividad Medical Center’s website, “it’s not a disease I would wish on anyone.”
Monning’s bill faces an uphill battle, of course, and the Journal article spells it out. PepsiCo threatened to move its corporate headquarters out of New York when the state considered implementing an 18 percent tax. Opponents also argue that such a tax could be regressive, an argument that rose, according to the Journal article, with respect to tobacco taxes until it was pointed out that the poor face a disproportionate burden of smoking-related illness.
The poor also are most affected by illnesses stemming from unhealthful diets. As Monning puts it, it’s easier and less expensive for a mother living in poverty to buy high calorie, low nutrition food than it is to buy and prepare something less caloric and more nutritious.
Legislating behavior can sometimes be a dangerous thing. Charging extra when that behavior is leading to skyrocketing health care costs, though, is incredibly sensible. While everyone has to drink something, water – at least in California – is readily available, mostly clean and costs little. The health benefits of drinking it are well-known.
And, unfortunately for the folks at SweetSurprise.com, the health benefits of drinking what they’re peddling is becoming well-known too.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com.