Six thousand deaths over the last decade could have been avoided if Americans drank less soda and sugary beverages, according to an analysis from the University of California, San Francisco.
The analysis found that America's growing sweet drink addiction has taken a hefty toll through health outcomes such as heart disease and diabetes and via higher health care costs.
Diana Ray of Danville, Ky., is familiar with the negative effects of soda addiction. Since she retired from her job as a registered nurse, Ray's consumption of soda steadily inched upward until she was drinking five to eight cans a day -- as much as an extra 1,200 extra calories and 328 grams of added sugar.
"I always have a Pepsi open on the table next to the bed, when I'm in bed in the morning with my coffee," Ray said. "It's an addiction."
An expensive addiction, Ray added, as the household goes through a 24-pack every other day, which adds up at $7 a pop.
But Ray's biggest motivation for quitting is rescuing her health and well-being: Since she switched from diet to regular soda she has put on 30 pounds, which is "horrifying" to her, especially because diabetes runs in her family.
The new analysis, presented Friday at the American Heart Association's 50th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention, offers a picture of just how horrifying the damage done by excess consumption of sugary drinks can be.
Using a computer model and data from the Framingham Heart Study, the Nurses Health Study and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers estimated that the escalating consumption between 1990 and 2000 of soda and sugar-sweetened beverages, which they abbreviated as "SSBs," led to 75,000 new cases of diabetes and 14,000 new cases of coronary heart disease.
What's more, the burden of the diseases translated into $300 million to $550 million increase in health care costs between 2000 and 2010.
The model is "really important because it gives us a big picture that might serve as a more effective impetus for health policies to curb consumption," said Dr. Litsa Lambrakos, lead author and internal medicine resident at the University of California, San Francisco.
"A lot of people drink these drinks on a daily basis and they have little to no nutritional value. We want [the public] to know that they should not be considered a staple of the American diet," she said.
Soda Pop Culture
Data shows that more Americans are drinking soda or other sugary drinks on a daily basis -- and having larger portions, more frequently -- than ever before, Lambrakos said.
This trend is not only expensive for the American public, it's downright deadly. The analysis estimates that a combined 21,000 years of potential life were lost to Americans over the last decade when increased consumption of the drinks led to premature death.
And it's not just the amount of sugar in the beverages, it's the kind. Lambrakos cited one study that found that people drinking soda or SSBs had an increased risk of diabetes while those drinking similar calorie and sugar loads of 100 percent fruit juice had no such increased risk.
But the beverage industry vehemently disagreed with this claim.
"Heart disease and diabetes are complex problems with no single cause and no simple solutions. Consuming sugar-sweetened beverages is not a risk factor" for either condition, the American Beverage Association (ABA) wrote in a press release on the analysis.
The ABA is a trade organization that represents the interests of beverage companies such as Pepsico and Coca-Cola.
"Sugars are sugars, calories are calories," said Maureen Storey, nutritionist and senior vice president of science policy at the ABA, so there should be no difference in obesity or disease risk for someone drinking high-fructose-corn-syrup-sweetened soda or 100 percent juice.
"Your body is not smart enough to figure out whether the sugar was add by a manufacturer or by nature," she added. "As far as I know, there is no scientific data to prove that high fructose corn syrup is any worse for you than any other kind of sugar."
When questioned about studies showing that processed sugars have a higher glycemic index, and thus a greater impact insulin resistance and diabetes risk, Storey said, "People get confused. That's a laboratory experiment, not real life."
Instead, the ABA believes that sodas and SSBs can be part of a healthy lifestyle, as long as people learn to balance out the calories they consume through the drinks with exercise and healthy eating.
Towards this effort, the ABA supports comprehensive nutritional education and has helped put programs into place that remove full-calorie drinks from school cafeterias.
Towards a Soda Tax
But there may not be much room for spending "discretionary" calories on soda if someone is eating a balanced diet, said Dr. Robert Eckel, a spokesman for the American Heart Association.
"If someone's drinking three 16-ounce Pepsis, ultimately it is either replacing a lot of calories that should go towards healthy food or they're gaining a lot of weight," Eckel said.
To encourage Americans to spend their calories elsewhere -- hopefully on more healthful indulgences -- many policymakers support the use of a "soda tax" on all beverages with sugar added, including sodas, sweetened ice teas and chocolate milk.
In his research on the subject, Dr. Kelly Brownell, the director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, said he "propose[s] a one-cent-per-ounce tax, which should decrease consumption by 23 percent -- that's enough to decrease health care costs by $50 billion over a 10-year time span."
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter recently went further than the standard penny-an-ounce approach, proposing a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, which would add $1.44 to the price of a six-pack of soda.
More and more cities and states are considering such a tax, Brownell said, but not if the beverage industry has anything to do with it.
In 2009 alone, the ABA spent $18.8 million lobbying against soda taxes, according to Kevin Keane, senior vice president for public affairs at the ABA, and most of that was spent in the last two quarters, when there was talk of a federal soda tax.
"This is a flat out attack on our industry," said Christopher Gindlesperger, director of communications at the ABA. "It's a discriminatory tax put on the back of hard working families. ... People don't want the government digging around in their shopping cart."
The industry is "willing to use whatever resources we deem necessary to get policy leaders and other opinion makers to understand that these taxes are unfair and regressive," he said.
But advocates of the tax hope it will decrease consumption the way cigarette taxes have decreased smoking habits, especially considering consumers will have other, cheaper, untaxed beverage options, such as juice, diet soda and unsweetened teas.
Diana Jay agreed a tax might deter her from consuming so much soda, though she's not sure about other people.
Cutting down soda is still such an uphill battle for her, she said, that she'll take any help she can get.