Obesity

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Richmond Soda Tax Campaign in Full Swing

By Mina Kim

Jeff Ritterman, Richmond city councilman who is championing the soda tax, on the campaign trail. (Photo: Mina Kim)

On MacDonald Avenue, the city of Richmond’s main drag, Jeff Ritterman is pulling a little red wagon that holds a plastic water cooler jug filled with forty pounds of sugar. Ritterman says that’s the average amount a child in Richmond consumes each year, just from drinking sodas. “The child gets overweight,” he says, “and the arteries of the heart fill up with bad fat. And that’s a real health problem.”

Ritterman is a retired cardiologist who likes to wear his graying hair in a ponytail. He’s also a city councilman and the man behind a November ballot measure that would make Richmond one of the first cities in the nation to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

According to a report from Contra Costa Health Services [PDF], more than half of Richmond’s children are overweight or obese.

At a shopping plaza, Ritterman’s wagon catches the attention of passerby Michael Bracey. Continue reading

Beverage Companies Blur Line Between Philanthropy & Marketing

Some soda companies have begun using cause marketing to curry public favor in the face of criticism. (La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

If you were watching the Superbowl in 2010 when the Packers beat the Steelers, you may have noticed that Pepsi commercials were absent from the ads that were vying for the attention of millions of viewers. Instead, Pepsi announced Pepsi Refresh, a project to take the $20 million dollars it would have spent on Superbowl advertising and give it to a good cause. They used a vast social media campaign to involve the public in voting for which cause would get the money.

Pepsi’s good deed did put $20 million dollars into the hands of organizations working to solve global problems, but Pepsi got something back too — loyal consumers. The campaign was a splashy example of a new strategy called “cause marketing” that plays off a growing trend of corporate social responsibility. But this money comes directly out of Pepsi’s brand marketing budget, not their philanthropy arm.

“There are some really revealing statements in the industry literature from executives at Pepsi saying very explicitly what they were trying to do,” explained Lori Dorfman, Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group. “And one of the things they were trying to do is get the attention of and favorability of millennials,” she added.

Dorfman and her colleagues have been digging into the nitty-gritty of the beverage industry to draw comparisons between the marketing strategies of big tobacco and those of soda companies, who have recently come under attack for the role their sugary product is playing in rising obesity rates.

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Lessons Learned from the War on Smoking, Applied to Obesity

Could a public campaign against obesity help people in the same way anti-smoking campaigns have? (Dave Whelan: Flickr)

Could a public campaign against obesity help people in the same way anti-smoking campaigns have? (Dave Whelan: Flickr)

Expect to hear a lot about obesity prevention in the coming days. A four-part HBO documentary about the obesity crisis debuts next week. Today, the Centers for Disease Control opened a major conference examining strategies to help Americans with this significant health challenge. At a report released this morning, researchers said obesity prevalence will increase about 33 percent in the next 20 years — climbing from one-third of Americans affected now to a 42 percent rate by 2030.

And believe it or not 42 percent is good news — that’s down from the 50 percent estimated in prior years.

Despite first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and its greater attention on childhood obesity, many public health leaders are frustrated with slow progress and say more must be done. They call for a different approach, using strategies similar to those used in the anti-tobacco movement. It was only after anti-tobacco advocates embraced community-based activism that smoking rates began to drop from a high of 42 percent in the mid-1960s to just over 19 percent today, they say. Continue reading

Global Experts Meet in Oakland to Share Ideas on Children’s Health

Malaria, tuberculosis, HIV — these are the communicable diseases many people associate with death in the developing world. But increasingly diseases like diabetes, heart disease and conditions related to obesity have become the ticking “time bomb” that public health experts are desperately trying to prevent form exploding.

Healthier school lunches can help fight obesity and its related diseases. (Photo: USDAgov/Flickr)

The Public Health Institute (PHI) convened the first-ever conference focusing exclusively on children and non-communicable diseases this week in downtown Oakland. Experts from around the world gathered to exchange ideas about how to prevent diseases that were once thought to be illnesses of the developed world from spreading globally. It’s no coincidence that the conference is being held in Oakland. “Poverty is a root cause of a lot of the problems that bring diseases like this to the fore, and it’s something that we grapple with on a daily basis in Oakland,” explained Jeff Meer, PHI’s special advisor for global health. “If we can get a handle on how poverty relates to illness in Oakland, then we can understand it in Bujumbura and Kigali.”

The four most common non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease and chronic heart disease. “Most of us think of them as illnesses that strike in rich, highly developed countries; but the fact is that there is a tidal wave, an epidemic of non-communicable diseases that is striking populations all over the world, and striking, frankly with great ferocity in very poor places that have fewer resources than we do to deal with them,” Meer told me. A tidal wave indeed — two-thirds of deaths worldwide can be attributed to NCDs according to Meer. Continue reading

Sugar: A Sweetener Gone Sour?

(Uwe Hermann: Flickr)

(Uwe Hermann: Flickr)

A spoonful of sugar may have helped the medicine go down when Julie Andrews sang the song, but fast forward to the 21st century and sugar isn’t looking so sweet. Today in a provocative commentary in the journal Nature, researchers argue that sugar is so toxic to our bodies, it should be regulated in the same way alcohol and tobacco are.

The three writers, all from UC San Francisco, say that every country that has adopted the Western diet, with its hallmark of highly-processed food, has seen rising rates of obesity and the diseases that go with it, such as heart disease and diabetes. But, in a turn, they argue against blaming obesity itself. “Obesity is not the cause,” they write, “rather, it is a marker for metabolic dysfunction, which is even more prevalent.” Metabolic syndrome leads to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, fatty liver disease and even cancer, they say. Continue reading

Obesity Epidemic May Be Leveling Off

(Malingering: Flickr)

(Malingering: Flickr)

For the first time since the numbers were crunched in 1980, the U.S. obesity epidemic seems to have reached a plateau. Americans got heavier and heavier through the 1980s and 1990s, but starting in the early 2000s, the steep increases seemed to slow.

Two studies, one in adults and one in children, were published online today by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2009-2010. They found no change from the prior survey, the second period of no change in the last 10 years.

Pat Crawford, Director of the Center for Weight and Health at U.C. Berkeley called the studies “cautious good news. … I am thrilled with the plateauing and I am encouraged. I think the biggest risk is that people relax and think we don’t have an obesity issue any more.” Today about one-third of American men and women, and about one in six children and teens are obese. Continue reading

Soda Tax: What Can a Penny Do?

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

We’ve seen it with tobacco. As taxes went up, use went down. Public health advocates have been salivating over the prospect of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to gain a similar foothold in the obesity epidemic and the myriad health problems excess weight causes. But hard evidence on the health effects of such a tax has been limited.

A new study in today’s Health Affairs, quantifies the impact quite nicely. A nationwide penny-per-ounce tax, the authors estimate, would reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by 15 percent. They say that modest reduction will lead to modest weight loss, which in turn leads to modest reductions in diabetes. After the researchers crunched all the numbers, all those modest reductions would, over ten years, result in 26,000 lives saves (or avoiding “premature deaths” as researchers prefer to say).

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