A Semi-Sweet Recap: Sugary Beverage Summit

Soda Summit Visual

photo: Lisa Sutherland

This is a guest blog post by Dr. Lisa Sutherland, PhD

Last week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in collaboration with other organizations, presented the Sugary Drinks Summit of 2012 in Washington, DC.  Co-sponsoring the event with CSPI was the American Heart Association, The California Endowment, The Kresge Foundation and California Center for Public Advocacy.

More than 250 people attended the 2-day event including public policy makers, public health advocates, nutrition experts, academicians, media (social and traditional) and NGO representatives.  From the Summit web site the event was described as “a national advocacy conference to motivate and strengthen national, state, and local initiatives, both public and private, to reduce sugary-drink consumption in the United States.”

Walking into the Capital Hill Hyatt Regency ballroom, the event location, we were greeted by displays reminding us of the sugar content of many common beverages and the on average sugar consumption from beverages each year in the US.  Now – I am going to be a bit critical for 3 seconds – there was much discussion during the event around the resources of the beverage industry and inability to compete on the same playing field – however, creativity is free and the displays were a bit reminiscent of my daughter’s 2nd grade science fair.  C’mon we can do better! (I apologize now if I just hurt the feelings of a summer intern.)  Albeit juvenile, the point was made – there is sugar in beverages and Americans consume a fair amount each year.

Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director and Founder of CSPI opened the Summit with a rallying cry to “keep up the good fight” and thanking folks for all of the efforts to date. He presented an overview of carbonated soft drinks (the sugary kind) that focused on portion size evolution, schools, marketing practices and impact on diet.   He then threw the industry a “bouquet” (more about this further down) and acknowledged that the soft drink industry has never advertised on Saturday morning children’s programming.  He went on to describe the industry’s broader marketing efforts.  Dr. J also overviewed the recent trends in dramatically reduced soda production (down 46% for one company and 31% for the other large multinational) and stated  “Americans are becoming more health conscious- bottled water sales up, soda sales down”.

He left the audience with three points that provided some balance to a very emotional topic:

1) Reducing or totally ending soda consumption will not return obesity levels to pre- 1980 levels  – there is more to it (see point 2);

2) Excess soda and excess sugar are not the only problems (white flour etc.); and

3) restated his “bouquet”.  Now, just to be clear – Dr. J was not throwing a pro-soda party by any means – he also noted that rates of obesity appear to be leveling off, which is “sure to be associated by decreased soda consumption” (see here  for an alternate view) and noted that due to consumption decreases in the US, tens of millions of dollars are being invested to grow global markets.

Too much sugar in soft drinks

photo: Lisa Sutherland

I have fourteen pages of notes and can’t possibly download it all here (well I could, but trust me – you don’t want me to) – so here are some additional highlights:

  • Panel members over the course of the two days discussed public health efforts in communities that have been met with success including:  Boston – ReThink Your Drink campaign; Philadelphia – Get Healthy Philly; Los Angeles – Choose Health LA; and environmental level changes at the Cleveland Clinic.  Two clear themes that emerged listening to public efforts included:

1) grassroots efforts can work – need to be persistent and repetition is key; and

2) working with multi-sector stakeholders (yes, including the beverage folks) leads to more and faster progress.

  • Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the Honorable Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT) each received the “Life’s Sweeter Champion Award” for their contributions to reducing sugary beverage consumption.
  • Mayor Nutter gave inspirational and motivational remarks describing Philadelphia’s response to the obesity epidemic – Get Healthy Philly. He told personal stories that resonated with the audience and called for a Surgeon General’s report on SSB and health.  He really threw it down and received one of two standing ovations over the course of the 1.5 days.  Note: he gave an amazing talk and I could have listened to him for hours, but this talk also came one day after this event. It’s a bit unfortunate and could be a Kermit “Really?!” skit.
  • The second standing ovation went to the Honorable Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT).  She freakin’ killed it, delivering serious remarks, sprinkled with humor, about the role of Congress and all Americans in addressing obesity.  She reminded us that not one state met the Healthy People obesity reduction goals – sad fact.  She called for a stronger Farm Bill, physical education  and nutrition education in all schools, national menu labeling standards, and tax on sugary soft drinks.  She urged the remaining 100 or so attendees to “use your networks to create pressure (on Congress)”.

As I participated in the Summit and listened to the many laudable (and many cool) efforts launched by public health departments and advocacy groups, it occurred to me that one constituent group was eerily absent – The beverage companies were not in the room to catch the bouquet thrown by Dr. J.  This was a “Sugary Beverage Summit” so it seemed that the group that could perhaps impact the most change should be in attendance – even if for part of the time.

I inquired into their absence and was told by the organizers, “We aren’t invited to their planning meetings, so they are not invited to ours.”  Ok, I hear that – but it doesn’t make total sense to me.  Admittedly by nature I am a “uniter” not a “divider” so the decision to exclude the group responsible for putting beverages on the street does perplex me, but I could hold my own summit and I definitely choose not to.

Can we truly move a dialogue forward to address reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (AKA soda) without all sectors present?  Maybe, but I’m not convinced.  Many public health summit presenters sharing their experiences commented that the most progress and success has been through partnerships and collaboration across multiple sectors.  So, why is the elephant not in the room, even if for part of the meeting?  This issue is bigger than one group or one movement and while there is much mistrust of “big business” we need to have civil conversations. We do not have to agree with each other, but I am optimistic that we can respectfully disagree and hopefully find some common ground.

Overall, the Summit conversations focused on tactics to pressure the industry largely through taxation, intensified, coordinated grassroots efforts, bans (e.g. schools, hospitals, public venues, portion size, product type, federal nutrition programs – SNAP) and litigation – local and state AG.  Glaringly absent was any discussion of where personal responsibility stops and starts.  There were also positive themes that deserve mention: Total per capita soda consumption is down, per capita calories/per ounce is down, 0 calorie beverages have increased in sales and consumption, towards the shift, and there has been a significant shift in products offered in schools (although most folks clearly would like to see full bans).

In the moments of rallying cries to “do more” and laundry list of barriers to more progress, faster, there were rays hope, inspiration, encouragement  - and perhaps most importantly to the advocates on the front lines – validation.

Lisa Sutherland HeadshotDr. Lisa Sutherland is nationally recognized food and nutrition expert and the president/owner of LA Sutherland & Associates providing food and nutrition science, communication and policy strategic counsel to private and public organizations.  Dr. Sutherland also holds an adjunct professor appointment in pediatrics at Dartmouth College.  She received her doctoral degree in public health nutrition, with a special track in policy and interventions, from the UNC at Chapel Hill.  You can follow her @caloriechannel

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  • Jen

    That second display (with the bottles and baggies of sugar) looks exactly like my kindergartener’s science fair project this year.  Except his was a little more put together.  (He had some guidance from my husband and I but he really did do the work himself.)  I agree that it sounds like they could have used a little more creativity.  At the end of the day, I’m not sure that a lot could (or should) be done to regulate the beverage industry.  More should be done to educate the public and to maybe nudge the beverage industry – like ending corn subsidies, which would force them to use less HFCS.  Also, there was talk about sodas but what about fruit juice?  They contain just as much sugar as soda (according to my kindergartener’s project) but don’t provide a whole lot in the way of nutrition -marginally better than soda.

  • Guest

    tldr; drink water

  • Cartoonguy_99

    ““a national advocacy conference to motivate and strengthen national,
    state, and local initiatives, both public and private, to reduce
    sugary-drink consumption in the United States.”

    In other words: “Let’s meddle in other people’s live based on false assumptions and feelings of superiority.”

    Sugar is a carbohydrate just like any other.  The amounts you consume (sugar or any other calorie) is what dictates health. 

    From commenter Jen: “like ending corn subsidies, which would force them to use less HFCS”

    If it’s not HFCS, another sugar will be used.  Ending corn subsidies won’t do anything but bankrupt midwest farmers (at least the one’s who aren’t up to their eyeballs in debt from the local bank, which is probably 99% of them). Your sugary drink will still exist.

    • Cartoonguy_99

       That should read (at least the one’s which ARE up to their eyeballs…


  • Public Health Fiddles…

    See how far public health practice has fallen. Americans have become obese on their watch, public health educators have failed miserably. Now they carp about soda pop. And cozy up to CSPI. In a misnomer of epic proportions, CSPI respects neither science nor the public interest. CSPI is the food Taliban.

    We desperately need to throw the current cabal of public health bums out on their obese asses. Restore the honorable practice of public health science and education.

  • Jim

    “She freaking killed it” is really a clear description of her talk. Here I think more details would have been helpful.

    • http://twitter.com/CalorieChannel la sutherland, phd

      See @cspi #natsodasummit or @caloriechannel for quotes from her talk.  Her main points are included.  

  • Nancy

    What does the sign say in front of the Domino sugar boxes?

  • Lo-Lo

    I love this information . could you give me the correct way to reference this using the APA style?