Jan 20, 2009, 04:24AM

Kill the Polar Bears

Soft drinks have been aimed at children for years. We need to stop treating soda like it's harmless.

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Looking at the recent Michigan snow from the safety of my warm apartment stirs up memories: Getting stranded in New Jersey in the Blizzard of '96; sledding near my great aunt and uncle's home in Vermont; the polar bears of our youth. You know what I mean. Polar bears like this guy. That's right; one of my warmest, most comforting wintertime memories derives from a soft drink advertising campaign launched in 1993.

The early- to mid-90s were halcyon days for marketing-firm-crafted animated friends like those polar bears, Cool Spot , Chester Cheetah, and, of course, Joe Camel. Mr. Camel, or "Old Joe" as he was officially known, is no longer with us, unfortunately. That's what you'd expect when every child knows and loves your mascot, but the product you just happen to sell is a viciously unhealthy and addictive substance-in this case, we're talking, of course, about cigarettes.

No one can fault a company for having a great ad campaign, but there is something a bit insidious about familiarizing children with an addictive substance that could have long-term negative health effects.

Cigarettes aren't the only addictive, unhealthy substance peddled by those childhood friends of mine. Maybe it's time for this country to sit down and really think about soda. I know it's hard because we've had a long relationship with soft drinks, but we ought to reconsider the way we expose our kids to them.

New York's proposed soda tax, while flawed, is a good first step. I agree with Nicholas Kristof's assessment that the proposed tax should help get kids off sugary drinks. An article in the Journal of Public Health Policy, published a little more than eight years ago, found that a 1999 one-dollar tax hike was expected to have decreased American cigarette consumption by upwards of nearly 40 percent. Taxes work, especially at the margins.

I can attest to this. When Maryland-once a cheap alternative to Michigan's expensive tobacco-raised the price of cigarettes by a dollar, it forced me to reconsider my old habit. The tax began on January 1, 2008. I quit smoking exactly a month later, haven't had a cigarette since, and this is no coincidence. On a related note, I had three Diet Cokes today, three yesterday, three the day before that, and so on. I'm not saying that soda is more addictive than nicotine, but it's habit-forming.

All this aside, there is a serious hole in Kristof's-and New York Gov. David Paterson's-thinking about a soda tax. It ignores drinking diet soda, which studies have shown to correlate with worse health than regular soda drinking. Diet soda needs to be a part of a proposed tax.

If we're strictly dealing with the sugary nature of beverages, we should honestly extend the tax to all beverages that contain a large amount of sugar per serving. After all, take a look at the sugar and caloric content of juice. It's not that different from the soft drinks themselves (frustratingly, Coca Cola does not provide the sugar content in that link, but the two-liter Coke in the fridge's nutritional label says it has 27 grams of sugar per 8 ounce serving-which is actually less than some of the juices).

Soda, however, is the beverage that, as Kristof points out, correlates with obesity and diabetes, both officially epidemics in this country. For freedom's sake, we can't go around banning unhealthy food, but there is something that differentiates soda from all the other unhealthy products. It is the line that I would draw in the sand, spreading the tax only to sodas. It is the presence of an addictive stimulant known as caffeine (http://www.springerlink.com/content/wl412194360xj32t/).

Take a look at the top 10 best-selling U.S. sodas in 2007. Eight out of 10 contain caffeine. So here we have beverages that are mostly addictive, as well as cause obesity and diabetes-and that ignores any possible negative effects from the caffeine. Beverages like Sprite and Fanta, the two caffeine-free options in the top 10, are marketed as interchangeable pieces of the soda paradigm. A soda is a soda. That makes caffeine-free sodas just as culpable in the situation, especially given that they produce the same negative health effects and benefit from a market created in part through a reliance on caffeine addiction. If the policies affecting soda consumption left out the caffeine-free options, I would protest but understand because the presence of this addictive chemical is the separating point between soda and something that's just bad for you.

So here's what we need to do. First, establish a tax on all sodas including the diet ones. Start teaching the ill effects of soft drinks in the education system, the way "Cigarettes are bad for you" is hammered into your head as you go through school. The last-and possibly most controversial bit-is a ban on soft drink advertising directed explicitly at children. I'm sorry, polar bears, but while soda may not quite be cigarettes, you need to the go the way of Joe Camel.

  • i hope you're joking. if America starts teaching the "ill effects" of soft drinks in school and adding a 1 dollar sin tax to packs of pop, it will have finally out-surpassed it's own ability to demonize random shit to pass the time and coddle Americans into being afraid of everything. with the economy so terrible, do we really need to bring the downfall of Coca Cola and Pepsi's sales?

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  • "What do you want for breakfast, honey?" "Well, I think I'll have nutritional ration #27." "Oh, but we had that last week -- let's have nutritional ration #32." "Oh, okay dear. That sounds good. I'm so glad we live in the New America." Pffhh. God damn health nuts. I'm going out for a smoke.

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  • Where do you stop with "sin taxes"? This is nanny-statism run amok, and it's also regressive taxation at its worst. Do you really want to put a tax on all sodas at the time of the worst recession in decades? And if you want to tax sodas with caffeine, what about all the coffee shop chains? Add another 20 percent to every cup of coffee sold? That's a sure way to drive more retail outlets out of business.

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  • I sure hope this is a satire. If so, great article. If not, read the comments above. Besides, the studies relating diet soda to weight gain are faulty. None of them address causation.

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  • But nutritional ration #27 is my absolute favorite!

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  • I drink coke fairly often but not as much as water, and I'm pretty darn healthy. it's all about moderation, fellas. one or two cokes every few days won't hurt you, just make sure to eat healthy and watch that shit. btdubbs coke is delicious and is the single greatest man-made beverage of all time.

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  • Landlord, this article isn't satire. It's the well-meaning kind of view, typified by NYC's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that says government knows better what's good for you and your family than you do. During this recession (really a depression, but let's stay positive), putting a tax on soda is an awful idea. It's no accident that McDonald's is doing well financially now, as people have scaled back their "eating out" habits. At least McDonald's and other cheap fast food joints WILL prosper, until an obesity tax is put on their products, which, of course, will be regressive taxation as well.

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  • This is just stupid. If you're going to do a tax on soda then why not make a tax on everything unhealthy. Besides, who needs more taxes!

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  • Great article but what happened to personal responsibility? People will get their sugar fix from other stuff - the problem is sedentary lifestyles, not diet alone. Also, I summarized the article for those of you pinched for time: http://synop.it/summaries/332

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  • Perhaps this is naive, but was obesity invented in the past 10 years? Taxing those who can least afford it doesn't make any sense in today's recession. If taxes are necessary, what about putting a surcharge on restaurant meals that cost more than $150, or bottles of wine that are more than $30? At least that'll make it more fair.

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