Sugary drinks are cheap, sweet and easy to get

white male kid filling very large soda inside conveinece store

Quick Summary

Sugary drinks are a staple of the American diet, contributing to chronic diseases that have a crushing impact on our health care system and our lives. Each year, Oregon spends over $1 billion on medical expenses for obesity-related chronic conditions. What can we do as Oregonians to counter the threat that sugary drinks pose to our health?

Nearly HALF (47%) of the added sugar in the average American diet is consumed in the form of sodas and other sugary drinks. Sugary drinks include regular sodas (non-diet), fruit juices, sports drinks, flavored milk, energy drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas.

I used to think that consumption of soda or sugary drinks was not a public health threat because I thought they were an occasional treat—not a staple of the American diet. When I was growing up, I had two sodas a year. Soda was a special treat I got on school field trips. Now, they’re a regular part of the American diet. In Oregon, more than 177 million gallons of sugary drinks are consumed each year. That amounts to approximately one gallon per week for every single person in the state.

Consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks contributes to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and poor oral health. These chronic diseases have a crushing impact on our health care system and greatly affect quality of life. Each year, Oregon spends about $1.6 billion in medical expenses for obesity-related chronic conditions and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Drinking this “liquid candy” provides excessive calories. People do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same calories from food, and they do not compensate by eating less. The average 20-ounce serving of soda contains about 240 calories and over 16 teaspoons of sugar, with little to no other nutrient value. That’s more sugar than the average adult should consume in an entire day!

It wasn’t always that way. The availability of sugary drinks is triple what it was 60 years ago. Beverage makers sell products in grocery stores and convenience stores, gas stations, drug stores, business supply stores, sports stadiums, concession stands, movie theaters, airports, casinos, restaurants, museums, hospitals, prisons and everywhere they can install a vending machine. Anytime you desire a soda, you can get one—often at less expense than a bottle of water. The incessant prevalence of soda and soda marketing (consider how often you see vending machines) also drives demand. Even if you haven’t been thinking about wanting a soda, your exposure to the vending machine and other marketing materials will suddenly create that desire for you. And that’s true across the state, from a small Eastern Oregon town to the Portland metro area.

The size of America’s sodas has also ballooned. When my parents were growing up, a standard soft drink bottle was 6.5 ounces. Today, sodas are available in much larger sizes. The average single serving soda size is 42 oz.

Source: Fact Sheet: Sugary Drink Supersizing and the Obesity Epidemic.

When I think about the impact of sugary drinks, I am reminded of the similarities to tobacco. Just like tobacco, sugary beverages are sweet, cheap and easy to get. Sugary drinks and tobacco are not necessary for health or well-being, but are widely consumed. Additionally, similar to tobacco, sugary drinks are marketed extensively to children, adolescents and low-income groups most at risk of becoming overweight and dealing with the consequences. Soda consumption, and tobacco use, is highest among such groups.

Marketing data demonstrates the clear targeting of specific communities. African American children and teens see more than twice as many ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks on TV compared with white children and teens. According to a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, advertising for sugary drinks on Spanish-language TV increased by 44% from 2010 to 2013.

A comprehensive review by the Institute of Medicine concluded that food marketing affects children’s food preferences, purchase requests, diets and health. Low-income children of all racial backgrounds are twice as likely to drink one liter (34 oz.) of sugary beverages per day, compared to other kids.

So what can we, as Oregonians, do to counter the threat sugary drinks pose to health? As a community, we can support efforts to reduce the affordability, acceptability, appeal and availability of sugary drinks. The Oregon State Health Improvement Plan presents evidence-based strategies to reduce the consumption of sugary beverages, including:

  • Increasing the price of sugary drinks
  • Increasing the number of private and public businesses, and other places, that adopt standards for healthy beverages

Karen Girard, MPA, is the former Manager of Oregon Health Authority’s Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention section.


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