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Big Soda Challenged on World Diabetes Day

A soda-lemonade stand with soda bottles topped with lemons, in Rishikesh, India. Credit: Surya Prakash / CC-BY-SA-3.0

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 12 2014 (IPS) - Corporations marketing unhealthy foods to poorer consumers are being challenged for their role in the growing global burden of diseases like diabetes.

Over 340 million people are living with diabetes, and the World Health Organization predicts the number of people who die from diabetes each year will double between 2005 and 2030.  Nov. 14 is World Diabetes Day.

"Being poor also puts you at risk in countries like Indonesia where soda companies actually purposely market to poorer marginalised people with lower levels of education.” -- Dr. Alessandro Demaio

Dr. Alessandro Demaio, a postdoctoral fellow in global health and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at Harvard University, told IPS that there is a clear link between poverty, diabetes and the marketing tactics used by junk food and soda companies.

“We know that globally about 80 percent of diabetes occurs in low- and middle-income countries, and we also know that in rich countries like Australia, the UK and the U.S., the worst affected populations are those who are most marginalised and impoverished,” Demaio said.

“The commonly held myth that non-communicable diseases are linked to affluence is pervasive and absolutely untrue.”

Diabetes is both a cause and consequence of poverty, Demaio said. “Diabetes care in a country like Vietnam or Malawi can cost 70 percent of a person’s income. We should remember that being poor also puts you at risk in countries like Indonesia where soda companies actually purposely market to poorer marginalised people with lower levels of education.”

Soda companies’ role in contributing to the diabetes burden is being challenged with the introduction of soda taxes in Mexico and Berkeley, California.

Dr. Vicki Alexander from Berkeley vs. Big Soda spoke to IPS about the successful campaign for Berkeley to become the first city in the United States to vote to introduce a soda tax last week.

She said that the Berkeley campaign was able to learn a lot from the successes that Mexico has had since introducing a soda tax, of one peso (eight cents) per litre in January 2014.

“Mexico City came up here [to Berkeley] to give a presentation when they got their preliminary data out,” Alexander told IPS.

Mexico City has seen a decrease in consumption of sugary beverages by 10 percent and an increase in water consumption by 13 percent, she said.

“It is such an inspiration because it is nationwide in Mexico. It shows us that yes, these taxes will have an impact,” Alexander noted. “Mexico became a model that we could discuss, the same issue in terms of the impact on diabetes and obesity.”

Demaio agrees that addressing lifestyle diseases such as diabetes should involve taxing unhealthy foods and drinks.

“We’re going to need to look at taxing things like soda, the foods that we know cause disease, we need to make them less affordable but we need to use that money to make other healthier foods more affordable.

“The soda tax in Mexico for example was a great step forward. The limitations on sizing of soda in New York that [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg tried to bring through but wasn’t able to, was again a great step forward,” Demaio said.

The Berkeley vs. Big Soda campaign deliberately involved people of colour in positions of leadership, because they are disproportionately affected by the issue, Alexander said. She said that soda companies “make decisions to market their beverages to people of colour.”

“They make huge profits off people being sick and try to confuse the public with statistics which have been completely refuted,” she said.

Diabetes and Poverty

Speaking at the United Nations in July, United Nations Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark said, “For too long NCDs were regarded as a problem for high-income countries.”

She said that this has changed as the United Nations now recognises “that developing countries are home to eighty per cent of the world’s NCD-related deaths.

“Today, low and middle-income countries are bearing the brunt of NCDs. Therefore, understanding the far-reaching development consequences of this is very important.”

Clark added that the cost of the four main NCDs, including diabetes, to lower and middle income countries is predicted to exceed seven trillion dollars between 2011 and 2025.

Demaio also told IPS that low and middle-income countries are struggling to keep up with the rapid change in the health challenges they are facing. “[High income countries] have seen the same health transition over a hundred years that some countries like Mongolia are seeing in 10 or 15 years.”

Middle income countries like China and India are among the worst affected: 13 percent of China’s population now has diabetes compared with only one percent in 1980.

“We have a situation where in many countries around the world, particularly in middle income countries, we have obese people living in the same house as people who are malnourished. This whole complex situation where we have over-nutrition and under-nutrition in the same family shows how broken our food system is globally.”

Demaio said that this is an outcome of the globalisation of the food system and the loss of food related resilience.

He says that many people have now lost the resilience that is the ability to be able to cook, to know what is in season, to be able to choose foods that make sense based on where you are geographically.

This loss of food resilience impacts not only people’s diets and health, but also has environmental and cultural consequences.

Highly processed foods that are transported long distances are more environmentally damaging than food that is local, in season, cheaper, healthier and fresher, Demaio said.

This also contributes to a loss of food culture as  “a single homogenised food culture is spreading around the world, replacing traditional diets and traditional food practices.

“We are a global community, this is a global problem, they are global companies, and these are global determinants of health. That’s the way that we need to see this challenge.” Demaio said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

 
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