A coalition formed by Bexar County, University Health System, the Health Collaborative, and other community leaders is taking aim at sugary drink consumption and its link to obesity after a similar initiative by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District fizzled out due to tepid support at City Hall.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff hosted a Thursday press conference announcing the coalition’s mission to get Bexar County to measure up to new national health guidelines that call for a 45% cut in daily consumption of sugar – from 22 down to 12 teaspoons a day for the average American adult.
The soda industry, which observers say helped kill the Metro Health initiative, is not thrilled.
“We certainly applaud the desire to promote community health. But there is a bit of a missed opportunity here in that efforts that target one food or substance have proven ineffective long-term in spurring improvements in a community’s health,” Texas Beverage Association (TBA) spokesperson Katherine McLane said before the announcement. “What’s proven more effective are holistic efforts that address health habits, that encourage balance and moderation in what families choose to eat and drink and their level of physical activity.”
TBA would like the message to be a broader one that doesn’t target the beverage industry, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually advertising and marketing its sugary drinks to adults and children and prefers public health campaigns that tell people what they “should” do instead of what they “shouldn’t do.” For example, the Delivering Choices campaign supported by the American Beverage Association and several soda companies.
“The City’s VegOutSA! campaign (launched Wednesday by the Mayor’s Fitness Council in partnership with H-E-B and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas) addresses everything that a family puts in its grocery cart and that’s the way to do it,” she said. “Efforts that just target one single food, one single substance, don’t give people tools that educate them about overall healthy lifestyles.”
Wolff said time has proven those tactics ineffective in the case of sugary beverages.
“We’ve been doing that all along and that’s never going to stop. We’re now more razor focused on (sugar), on what we think is the biggest problem,” Wolff said after the press conference.
In fact, the VegOutSA! launch focused exclusively on the importance of fruits and vegetables in the daily diet and made no mentionof sugary drinks, or other nutrition-deficient processed food and drinks that have been linked to obesity, Type II diabetes, hypertension and other health maladies.
Public service campaigns promoting an active lifestyle have become more commonplace in San Antonio in recent years, particularly since the formation of SA2020 and the Mayor’s Fitness Council, with events such as Síclovía and Fitness in the Park, and expansion of the trailway system leading to increased public recreation. More and more, however, health care and medical professionals have been trying to put the focus on San Antonio’s dietary habits, which have made it one of the most obese cities in America.
It’s well documented that excess sugar can lead to tooth and gum decay, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity which can lead to heart disease. Bexar County is no stranger to these health issues. While obesity and diabetes rates are trending in a positive direction, the numbers are still dire, and Bexar County is still ranked worst among the state’s metro areas. As of 2013, the incidence of diabetes was 9% nationally and statewide, and 13% in Bexar County, where six out of 10 adults and three out of 10 high school students are obese or overweight.
As described in an op-ed published in the Rivard Report earlier this month, “Big Soda Sugarcoats City’s Public Health Message,” the working group established by Metro Health in 2014 included a TBA representative and a Coca-Cola Company public relations employee. The group was working on branding and messaging of a campaign to help reduce sugar consumption, but the industry representatives effectively stymied the committee’s work and the group eventually disbanded.
“When you start to do something, if one side is there, pounding the heck out of you, you may not take the right approach … that happened with Uber, it happened with soft drinks,” Wolff said. “(TBA) tried to stop (The Commissioner’s Court) from taking it up … I doubt if they will be (a part of this process), but I wish they were. Soda companies can sell all kinds of drinks … they sell water, too, so this isn’t an attack on their industry, it’s just saying, ‘Hey, sell people something that’s not going to hurt them.’
“I thought the City was going to take the lead, but when I saw they didn’t … we had to step up.”
The campaign was unanimously supported by the Commissioners Court at its meeting last week. Two days later, the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to both Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, released a report calling for a significant reduction in sugar intake. It’s been five years since the guidelines had been updated.
“This group of health and nutrition experts recommended for the first time that Americans reduce the amount of sugar in our diets to no more than 10% of our total calorie consumption,” said Dr. Bryan Alsip, executive vice president and chief medical officer at University Health System. “That boils down to about 12 teaspoons of sugar per day.”
Which equals a staggering 80 pounds a year, hardly constituting minimal consumption.
Americans consume 10 extra teaspoons a day. Most of that comes from sugary drinks, said Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of Metro Health. There are certainly no hard feelings about the new coalition stepping in to finish what Schlenker started almost a year ago when he presented a similar campaign to a divided City Council. He’s a public employee, but also a physician. His end-game is to make the community healthier – physically and, therefore, economically.
“I’m pleased that the Judge (Nelson Wolff) sees this as a personal issue and that the Commissioners Court went on the record with a very firm statement on sugary beverages and they are committed to taking action,” Schlenker said. “We need to fix on a concrete, actionable message. That is key. There are many sugary beverages, but 80% of what people consume is soda. Apologies to the soda industry, but we have to talk about soda.
“If you drink a couple sodas a week, it’s not going to hurt you. But if you drink one every day, it’s very tightly associated with obesity. That is a behavior that needs to change.”
Soda simply shouldn’t be in your refrigerator, he said. It should be seen as a treat – like a candy bar.
A 12 ounce can of soda has about nine teaspoons. Orange juice has about 10 teaspoons of sugar.
“It’s important to know that we’re not merely talking about soft drinks, I think that’s one that gets listed most … but those of you with a daily coffee habit, your grande caramel macchiato has about six teaspoons of sugar,” Dr. Alsip said. “Even one energy drink can add up to about 10 teaspoons of sugar.”
“These (sugary) drinks are responsible for about half of the extra sugar that we consume in our diets,” he said. “Calories that we consume as beverages simply just don’t satisfy hunger the way that real food does. Consuming a lot of extra calories, but not doing anything to satiate your appetite.”
Over the next few weeks, the coalition will be developing the campaign that will likely result in a presence on social media, public service announcements, and maybe even some old-fashioned billboards, Wolff said.
*Featured/top image: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff announces the new coalition formed to reduce sugar intake. Photo by Iris Dimmick.