Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bye-Bye, Miss American Supersize



My husband is a generous man. He gives his time to others freely, and those others include people he will never know. They include the future citizens of a town we called home for twenty-five years, a town where he served many years on the Planning Commission, an advisory board reporting to and recommending actions for the City Council and Mayor. He received nothing other than an occasional thank-you from city staff and an annual certificate. His real reward was in serving the greater community.

During one of his years of service, he suggested that the Mayor declare his town to be the first and only smoke-free city in the United States. My dear spouse’s suggestion was never taken seriously. In fact, many thought the idea radical, even Draconian, that is until more evidence about the harms of second-hand smoke and tobacco in general ultimately led to smoke-free work areas, restaurants, campuses, stadiums, and finally, a first entirely smoke-free city: Aspen, CO.

The transformation from tobacco everywhere to tobacco nowhere was a slow evolution in thinking. From the earliest days of cigarette advertising, smoking was portrayed as a benefit. It soothed jangled nerves after a hard day at work. So popular was the habit that men’s shirts featured breast pockets and ladies' accessories included cases. At fifteen, I knew a girl whose physician advised her parents to teach her to smoke. She had a stomach ulcer, and smoking was supposed to be part of her cure.

Studies appeared and were often played down or countered by other studies for which quasi-scientists or jaded physicians were handsomely rewarded. Even former candidate for president, Bob Dole, suggested, as late as 1996, that the jury was still out on the harms of tobacco. He happened to speak such foolishness on the Today show during a Katie Couric interview. She asked him to repeat himself; she seemed genuinely astonished to hear Dole defend the indefensible. By 1996, everyone agreed that cigarettes in particular and tobacco in general kill. Dole’s acceptance of generous donations from the tobacco lobby may have been the final nail in the coffin of his failed campaign.

Although denial continues to make cigarettes profitable for both private companies and the public coffers, a public awareness campaign and heavy taxes have helped to reduce the overall number of smokers in the U. S. A similar campaign to raise our consciousnesses about high fructose corn syrup and the harms of consuming too much of it is now underway.

One prong of that consciousness raising campaign is the elimination of corn subsidies. Farmers, like anyone else on the planet, wish to make money so they grew plenty of corn, enough to help solve the problem of hunger around the world. But  approximately 925 million people are hungry world-wide (http://www.wfp.org /hunger) because a great deal of the corn crop was reserved for the making of ethanol. Another negative side-effect of propping up corn as a crop is that subsidies drove down the cost of corn and tempted food producers to increase their profits by switching to high fructose corn syrup, a product that has its own lobby, one that advertises to convince consumers that sugar is sugar whether it comes in the form of granules or syrups.

Several research studies disagree and suggest that high fructose corn syrup packs on pounds, especially around the belly. In 2010, Princeton released results of a study that linked high fructose corn syrup to belly fat (http://www.princeton.edu/ main/news/archive/S26/91/22K07/), and belly fat, as we’ve all learned, is harder to take off and more harmful to our bodies than fat stored elsewhere. It’s linked to cancers, heart disease, and bone density problems (http://www.health.harvard. edu/newsweek/Abdominal-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it.htm). Last month, news reports included a warning about sugar itself and its effects upon long-term memory (http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/this-is-your-brain-on-sugar-ucla-233992.aspx).

So all that sugar, especially in the form of corn syrup, should be rationed. We should all seek to consume less of it for our own good health, and New York City Mayor Bloomberg has seized upon an idea that is gaining ground: fine sellers sweet sugary beverages to discourage their distribution and thereby restrict their consumption.

Bloomburg’s proposal attempts to increase awareness about the harms of corn syrup by limiting the quantity of high-calorie beverages that consumers can buy at one time. Specifically, the Mayor has proposed a ban “on big drinks … that contain more than 25 calories per 8 ounces. It [a ban] would not apply to diet soda or any other calorie-free drink or milk-based beverages.  [And] Consumers will be allowed to buy additional bottles of soda if they wish and fountain drink refills are not restricted by the proposal. The ban would apply to bottled drinks as well as fountain sodas, and restaurants and venues that don't comply can face a $200 fine” (http://www.cbs news.com/8301-504763_162-57451372-10391704/mayor-bloombergs-soda-ban-proposal-to-be-submitted-to-nyc-health-board-today).

In other words, New York City’s consumers can still swill as much high-calorie soda pop as they wish; they just can’t buy a Big Gulp or Rt. 44 or supersize their drinks. Instead of being enticed to order bigger and bigger beverages because they’re there, consumers must now elect to drink more calories than health experts recommend. Consumers must order a second and third helping of sugary drinks, and they will do so in full knowledge of the calorie count. Their co-workers will know and exercise an invisible restraint because some of them will tally the calories and judge. And that’s why Bloomberg’s proposal, as full of work-arounds and gaping holes as it is, might just work.

Currently we thoughtlessly order what’s on the menu, what sounds good, and we accept the portion sizes that the food industry puts before us. Those of us who go to the trouble of reading the fine print may discover just how many calories are in that sweet, sweet drink. We may learn that a single delicious salad is really meant for two people and contains nearly 1,200 calories, a full day’s load of calories for many people.

But as long as the fine print is fine and posted on the Internet far away from the counter or on a poster tucked in some obscure corner of the restaurant, we, blissful in our ignorance, drink and eat, wondering why we can’t lose weight. Bloomberg simply wishes to drag the fine print into the marketplace where it can be seen and considered, where we cannot don our blinders and ignore the consequences of our actions.

I say go for it, Mayor! You may be far ahead of the curve on this one. Like my husband who predicted the era of smoke-free air over entire cities, you foresee a future where every American butt will actually fit into those sculpted hard plastic seats made to squeeze the maximum number of human beings onto public transportation. I know my own butt needs considerable reduction so I vow to restrict my thirst to unsweetened iced tea. Can I still get that supersized?