Youths leading fight against sugary drinks 

When I trained at San Francisco General Hospital in the early 1990s, half of my admissions were to Ward 5A: gay men with AIDS. They were dying from this ravaging epidemic and there was little we could do. If you roam those same halls today, you see young and old patients bearing the ravages of Type 2 diabetes: patients on dialysis with end-stage kidney disease, patients awaiting amputations, patients racked with heart disease and reeling from devastating strokes. We have replaced one epidemic with another.

One hundred years ago, Type 2 diabetes was a rare condition that occurred primarily in older people. Today, almost one-quarter of teens have either diabetes or prediabetes — more than double the rate of just 10 years ago. If current trends continue, 40 percent of all American children will get diabetes in their lifetimes, with half of all Latino and black children born in 2000 getting diabetes sometime in their lives.

What happened? Americans' sugar consumption has tripled over the past 50 years. And sugary drinks are now the No. 1 source of calories in the American diet — and a major contributor to Type 2 diabetes. Just one 12-ounce soda has about nine teaspoons of sugar — more than the recommended daily maximum for adults and more than three times the daily maximum for kids. Just one to two sugary drinks a day increases risk for Type 2 diabetes by 26 percent.

At a time when Americans of all ages need to decrease consumption of sugary drinks, the American beverage industry is targeting young people — and mostly young people of color — to drink more. In a marketing presentation entitled "Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Millennial Generation," the chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola described a plan to use "precision marketing that targets young people, mostly in Latino and African-American communities in the United States and developing countries abroad" to consume more sugary drinks.

Evidence of tactics targeting youth are everywhere: in advertisements and product placements for sugary drinks; high-priced celebrity endorsements by LeBron James, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and others; and sponsorships, video games, social media, cartoon characters and contests on children's websites.

Bay Area youth are talking back to sugary-drink producers through the Open Truth campaign (, a collaboration between Youth Speaks Inc., UC San Francisco's Center for Vulnerable Populations at San Francisco General Hospital, and other public and private entities concerned about the negative health impacts of sugary drinks. Featuring videos of youth poets from the acclaimed website and outdoor and transit ads, the Open Truth campaign has two simple demands: that the sugary-drinks industry starts telling the truth about the negative health impacts of its products and stop targeting youths to drink more.

And not a moment too soon. Youths targeted by sugary-drink companies are the first generation of Americans expected to live shorter lives than their parents due to chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Latino Bigger Picture youth poet Jose Vadi asks in his video poem, "The Corner": Is the Bay Area ready to engage in this critical battle for the health of our most vulnerable communities?

We are standing on the corner,

Between healthy and heart attack ...

They turned our bodies into a battlefield,

Turned our cookbooks into combo meals ...

How much longer must we lose the battle

Before we start the war against diabetes?

Here — on The Corner,

Of healthy or heart attack,

Life or stroke,

Before we finally decide,

Which way to cross?

How far do we have to slip

Before we end this edible misery,

And rewrite our recipe?

Find out how you can help at

Dr. Dean Schillinger is a practicing primary-care physician and former chief of diabetes prevention and control for the California Department of Public Health. His opinions do not represent current or former employers.

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