Annette Farr believes children are our future

Annette Farr believes children are our future

Annette Farr has just returned from a trip to the US and the nation's children proved to be a worry to her. And, as soft drinks firms are keen to point out, she's not the only one.

In America, Fall is under way and children are going back to school. But they will not be walking to catch the traditional yellow bus, or cycling, to get there. The bus will either pick them up at their house, or they will be driven by over-protective parents. According to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, only 13% of children aged five to 14 walk or cycle to school, compared to 48% 40 years ago - just one change in generational lifestyles which has helped contribute to the alarming US childhood obesity rates. 

Weight gain is not all due to consuming soft drinks, as is so often headlined. It's all about the three E's: exercise, economics and education. And levying a soda tax on high-sugar content beverages, as proposed by a number of city legislators, will not help.

Advocates, such as the US Department of Agriculture, believe a 20% tax on sugary drinks could make a difference to obesity rates. Its study, drawing on National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data, found that increasing the price of sugary sodas by 20% could cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day (equivalent to 3.8 pounds of body weight over a year) for adults, and an average of 43 calories per day (4.5 pounds over a year) for children.

Of course, it's not that simple. For obvious reasons the suggestion of a soda tax has worried carbonate giants (Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper) who, under the auspices of their trade organisation the American Beverage Association (ABA), have contributed to the millions of dollars spent opposing the notion. Indeed, it has emerged that ABA spent US$3.5m lobbying the federal government on beverage taxes in August and a total of $3.95m during this year's second quarter.

This might seem a considerable sum, but it's a minuscule part of the big picture. The ABA's campaign thus far has proved effective, as cities like New York have back-pedalled on their plans to tax soft drinks. Commenting on the most recent proposed tax to be shelved, in Philadelphia, ABA president Susan Neely said: “Families are still barely making it from paycheck to paycheck. They are tired of paying more taxes. Adding to their burden with a tax on their groceries should be the last way to tackle the city's budget problems.”

Having just returned from a few days in upper New York State, it's evident to me that there is a real fear in the US of a double-dip recession. Those I spoke with said that, if children are going to be weaned off high sugar comfort drinking, with a litre of cola costing a mere US$0.90, then the new low calorie, nutritionally healthy drinks developed over recent years are going to have to be made more affordable. 

In schools - where one teacher told me children from the lower socio-economic groups often come to school without a packed lunch and are reliant on vending machines which only vend highly processed, fat-fried junk food - the soft drinks industry has taken a proactive stance. 

ABA has joined with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to create School Beverage Guidelines to remove full-calorie soft drinks from all schools and provide for students with a range of lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverage options. The ABA reports a 88% decrease in total calories contained in all beverages shipped to schools.

Then, there's the cost of health care for the overweight. There are over 23m children and teenagers in the US aged between 2 to 19 who are obese or overweight, a statistic that health and medical experts consider as an epidemic rating. These children are at risk of getting Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even strokes – conditions usually associated with adulthood. 

Adding to the melting pot is a disturbing backlash from the overweight, happy to carry their excess pounds, in the form of The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) which describes itself as a "nonprofit civil-rights organisation dedicated to improving the quality of life for the obese". NAAFA, recently held its first 'Health at Every Size Summit' that brought in health professionals to debate the notion that health and fitness has nothing to do with body size.

NAAFA would be happy for Americans to accept that being obese is normal. How scary is that?

Maybe this month's White House and Congress campaign 'National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month' will begin to reverse the trend. As children return to school, the timing is perfect. Throughout the US, a variety of organisations and state and city leaders will be running awareness campaigns around the basic principal that if you eat balanced nutritional meals and engage in more physical activity you will not pile on the pounds.

"For the first time, the nation will have goals, benchmarks, and measurable outcomes that will help us tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, one child, one family, and one community at a time," said the campaign's figurehead, Michelle Obama. 

The First Lady has positioned herself centre stage when it comes America's obesity problem. The soft drinks industry, too, has showed its commitment to helping families make more informed choices with initiatives such as displaying the number of calories more prominently on product labels, vending and fountain machines, smaller portion sizes and further marketing of low-calorie beverages.

So far, in her First Lady role, Michelle Obama has not put a foot wrong. She has endeared herself to the majority of the American public. She is slim, her children are slim and so is her husband - the perfect role model family. Her high profile support could very well bring about change.

Meanwhile, children could easily achieve the weight loss suggested by the supporters of a soda tax by simply walking or cycling to school, learning about nutrition and healthy eating whilst they are there and not turning into couch potatoes when they get home.