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Health issues need solutions, not blame

Two Views • Families need help on their path to better health
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Could the day be coming when children under 18 won't be able to buy their own fast foods and snack foods? At least one physician thinks certain

Obesity is a serious problem for Oregon as well as our nation. Solving it requires a lot more than snappy sound bites or discriminatory food and beverage taxes (Obesity wars hit Portland, July 28).

To effectively tackle obesity, we need a sustained commitment by all of us - parents, educators, and leaders in both the public and private sectors.

America's beverage manufacturers and distributors have adopted a multi-pronged approach to help our consumers, customers and communities with products, policies and programs. We have put clear calorie information at consumers' fingertips, cut calories from beverages sold in schools by removing full-calorie soft drinks and reduced the total beverage calories produced for the marketplace.

When First Lady Michelle Obama announced her 'Let's Move!' campaign to address childhood obesity, our industry created the Clear on Calories initiative to make calorie information more visible and useful to consumers by placing new calorie labels on the front of every can, bottle and pack they produce. These new front-of-pack calorie labels put calorie information at the fingertips of consumers so they can choose the beverage that is right for themselves and their families.

Clear on Calories came on the heels of our industry's successful implementation of national School Beverage Guidelines that removed all full-calorie soft drinks from schools. We developed these guidelines working with President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association as part of a broader effort to teach America's schoolchildren about the importance of balanced diet and exercise.

We recognize that schools are special places where parents are not around, thus they want more help with what their children eat and drink there. Our school initiative changed the school beverage landscape by removing full-calorie soft drinks from all schools and replacing them with more lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverage options. The result: an 88 percent reduction in calories available from beverages in schools since 2004.

Beyond schools, if you walk down the beverage aisle at your local grocery store, you'll see the result of ongoing industry innovation. There are now myriad beverage choices available - driven by more low- and no-calorie beverage options from which consumers can choose. By providing more low-calorie choices, our industry has cut the total calories from the beverages it produces for the marketplace by 21 percent from 1998 to 2008.

Yet, while our industry is committed to results-oriented solutions, some activists still prefer to make us the scapegoat for the complex problem of obesity, distracting our nation from real solutions. The facts remain: Soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are not a unique cause of obesity.

There is plenty of evidence that sugar-sweetened beverages play a small - and declining - role in the American diet.

• All sugar-sweetened beverages account for only 7 percent of the calories in the average American's diet, according to the federal government's own data. That means Americans get 93 percent of their calories from other foods and beverages. And soda accounts for only 4 percent of the calories in the diet.

• Sales of regular soft drinks have declined by 12.5 percent from 1999 to 2010, according to Beverage Digest, a leading monitor of the beverage industry.

• Again, the total calories from beverages produced for the marketplace decreased by 21 percent from 1998 to 2008.

These reductions in calories from beverages, as well as soda sales, stand in stark contrast to the fact that adult and childhood obesity rates continue to rise across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So if obesity rates continue to rise while calories from soda sales and other sugar-sweetened beverages have declined for more than a decade, the activists' claims that these beverages are driving obesity just don't add up.

Yes, our industry makes products that have calories. We're up-front and clear about that. We also make a great many products that don't have calories. What is out of whack is the fact some industry critics want to assign 100 percent of the blame on beverages even though they make up such a small percentage of the diet.

Obesity is just too complex and difficult an issue to address with overly simplistic sound bites and mischaracterizations, rather than comprehensive solutions. We need some perspective here if this nation is going to be serious about addressing childhood obesity.

Otherwise, as a nation, we will fail in finding the meaningful and holistic solutions to reverse this serious problem.

Susan Neely is president and chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association (ameribev.org), the trade association representing companies that manufacture and distribute non-alcoholic beverages in the United States.