By Dr. Roger A. Clemens.
There’s a reason we teach our children the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. If we use our voices to broadcast nonsense or empty claims, we run the danger of people tuning us out – and not being heard when we have something important and meaningful to share. Today, our culture is filled with so much chatter that it can be hard to tell what to take seriously and when we need to take action.
Nowhere is this truer than in the public health arena. Numerous voices, all speaking out of concern for the public’s wellbeing, have filled the echo chamber with so much information that it can be tough to sort out what the truth is. In fact, it makes you want to plug your ears.
The voices of medical professionals should have the highest volume in the public health debate. And, as a doctor of public health and a nutrition/biochemistry researcher, I choose to use my voice to redirect the conversation towards health policies that will actually have a positive impact on the lives of Californians.
Lately, we have paid too much attention to loud voices promoting policies that will not bring about real change or help Californians live healthier lives. The latest example is San Francisco’s beverage warning labels, which by law now require warnings on billboards for beverages that contain “added” sugars. The signage will now have to read “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.” This follows the City of Berkeley’s adoption of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, which is yet another instance where community leaders adopted bad public policy that distracts from the real culprits behind disease. By using their voices on such fragmentary approaches, legislators are merely contributing to the never-ending noise.
When we listen instead to scientific research, we learn that people are consuming less sugar from beverages than in past decades. An analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tells us that Americans reduced their consumption of added sugars from sugar-sweetened beverages by 37 percent from 1999 to 2008. And, during that same timeframe, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes (T2D) approximately doubled. In addition, 2014 USDA data indicate sugar consumption is on the decline over the past decade. These are the facts, and they speak clearly: reducing consumption of added sugars from beverages has not halted our mounting rates of Type 2 diabetes, or obesity for that matter.
If elected leaders want to get involved and help move the obesity and T2D needle, what we should really be talking about is energy balance. It’s a simple equation: balancing your food and drink intake with your physical output. Telling people to refrain from consuming sugar-sweetened beverages will do no good if they replace them with energy-rich foods, and it only contributes to the cacophony of voices confusing the public. What, then, does a warning label do to really educate Californians about their daily choices?
Public health challenges such as diabetes and obesity are serious issues, and they demand a comprehensive solution. It can be tempting to find easy ways to seemingly chip away at the problems we face. But, instead, we must discuss the true, broader causes of these serious public health issues so that real solutions can rise above the prevailing noise. In the public health debate, a collective discussion is required. Together, let’s choose to use our voices to turn up the volume on effective solutions that will have meaningful impacts.
Dr. Roger A. Clemens is Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the International Center for Regulatory Sciences housed within the Department of Clinical Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Economics and Policy at the University of Southern California, and is Chief Scientist for the Daedalus Humanitarian Foundation. He has more than 35 years of experience in the food industry and academia with 50 peer-reviewed publications. He is a popular domestic and international speaker, who co-founded and writes Food Technology Magazine’s “Food, Medicine and Health” column. A leader in the Institute of Food Technologists and the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, his research expertise includes public health communication, nutrition and health, and food science.