Soda Size: Taking the Big Out of the Gulp

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Marco Werman: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing a ban on large sodas. The measure would put a 16 ounce limit on sugary drinks sold in the city's restaurants, delis and movie theaters. If Bloomberg has his way, those bucket-like containers that many people guzzle at the movies or sporting events would be history. Kelly Brownell is a professor at Yale University. He's an obesity expert and a contributor to the HBO Documentary "The Weight of the Nation." Brownell supports Bloomberg's efforts. He says another option would be to impose an extra tax on soda.

Kelly Brownell: Other countries such as Denmark and France have put into place taxes on sugared beverages, but they've relatively recent and it's too early to know what would happen. We and others have put together data from the United States and we figured that a tax of a penny per ounce on any beverage with added sugar could lead to substantial health care savings. But, the soda companies have made it a top priority for them to stop these taxes and I suspect they'll do exactly the same thing with this New York City portion-sized proposal.

Werman: In Denmark and France where these kinds of things have been tried, how did they stack up in terms of obesity to the United States?

Brownell: Well, obesity in the United States leads the world so these other countries don't have as much of it, but they have enough to be of concern and that's when they are not as pushed around by the food companies as we are in the United States. So, that's why they have taken more aggressive action and have these taxes in place. Now, it would take a little time to know whether they work but the fact that they have been enacted I think is a very positive move.

Werman: So, America invented Coca-Cola. I imagine, culturally, it's just much harder here in the United States and other parts around the world to deal with this problem.

Brownell: Culturally, it's hard in the U.S. because we're accustomed to these beverages being part of our life, but we can't subtract out the fact that they are marketed so aggressively by this industry. They are aggressively market to kids in particular and, because of that, these intense brand loyalty set in very early in life and they are hard to change. But, just like we were able to turn around the norms on tobacco, I suspect we can do it with these products as well.

Werman: I'm wondering if there are countries, places around the world who see the size of a Big Gulp here in the United States and are learning from these obesity traps that we have here.

Brownell: You hope that that's the case because a lot of these countries could look at the United States to see what has gone awry and try to prevent those sorts of things. The westernization of native diets would be an example. Large portion sizes, eating in the automobile, the erosion of a certain number of meals per day, eating late at night, you could go on and on with the list. These things will sweep these countries because the food industry just will try to train people to eat just like Americans have eaten so they can get as much products sold as possible. If the countries see it coming, maybe they can do something in advance which we failed to do.

Werman: If the U.S. leads the world in obesity, what are the countries that are kind of second, third, fourth, fifth place?

Brownell: Well, the developed countries such as the U.K., Australia, Canada are very high on the list, but what's saddest of all is that developing countries are having very high rates of obesity overwhelm them as well. The Health Minister of China, within the past several years, declared that over-nutrition and obesity are more significant problems in his country than malnutrition. Who ever thought that they would arrive?

Werman: Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy at Yale, he's been speaking with us from New Haven. Thank you very much Kelly.

Brownell: Thank you.

Werman: When I traveled to Japan last year I noticed that soft drink containers there tend to be modestly sized and that got me thinking. How much does your diet change when you travel? We'd love to know your experience with serving sizes around the globe. Share your cultural packaging experience with us on our Facebook Page or at theworld.org.