Relax, Soda Isn’t Killing Anyone

A study says that 180,000 people die every year thanks to sugary drinks. Really? Like, if we could magically erase soda and energy drinks from the Earth, the 180,000 people who died of diabetes and heart disease would still be alive? That sounds right...

Today, the left-wing blog ThinkProgress freaked out over a study that linked soda and other sugary drinks to 180,000 deaths globally each year. According to that study, “one out of every 100 obesity-related deaths around the world can be tied to sugary drinks, which directly exacerbate health conditions like diabetes, heart diseases, and cancer… the over-consumption of those beverages increased global deaths from diabetes by 133,000, from cardiovascular disease by 44,000 and from cancer by 6,000.” One of the study’s co-authors, Gitanjali Singh of the Harvard School of Public Health, said that these tens of thousands of deaths “should impel policy makers to make strong policies to reduce consumption of sugary beverages.” ThinkProgress went on to note that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to do exactly that, but the courts struck his proposal down and now, Oh God, New Yorkers will keep drinking lots of soda and, presumably, keep dying from sugary drinks. I hope you’re happy, you cranky libertarian types. The right to drink whatever you want that you cherish so much is killing innocent people.

Man, where to start?

1. 180,000 deaths worldwide per year is, like, hardly any deaths. The CIA World Factbook says that 107 people die every minute, which works out to roughly 154,000 deaths a day. If soda is killing as few people as the study says, it’s not a hugely urgent problem.

2. The American Beverage Association—a.k.a., Big Soda, so take this with a grain of salt—pointed out in Bloomberg that the study’s abstract, which was published by the American Heart Association, doesn’t include a methodology and wasn’t peer-reviewed, so it’s impossible to check the researchers’ work. They say the American Heart Association “calculated the quantities of sugar-sweetened beverage intake around the world by age and sex; the effects of this consumption on obesity and diabetes; and the impact ofobesity and diabetes-related deaths,” but the raw numbers weren’t on the website so we have to take them at their word.

3. It sounds like what they’re saying is that people are drinking a lot of soda and sugary drinks, which is bad because soda and sugary drinks contain a lot of bad stuff and empty calories and can put people at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Can’t really argue with that—drinking fizzy brown water that’s flavored with chemicals is pretty self-evidently bad for you. But separating this one behavior from all the other behaviors that people who are at risk for being fat and/or contracting diseases related to an unhealthy lifestyle and saying flat out that one out of every 100 obesity-related deaths is caused by soda is… weird. So, for every 100 people who died last year of pumping their bodies full of gross stuff, there’s one guy who would still be alive if he never touched soda? Or if we magically eliminated sugary drinks from Americans’ diets, the 25,000 deaths this study links to such drinks wouldn’t have happened?

“X behavior causes Y deaths” headlines are always popular because people like numbers, and statements like that at least appear to quantify bad behaviors. Never mind if the numbers don't really make any sense, like the Smoke Free Movies campaign’s ridiculous claim years ago that giving all movies that featured smoking an R rating “would cut movie smoking's effect on kids in half, saving 50,000 lives a year in the US alone.” A more realistic headline like “Soda Is Unhealthy, as You Know, so We Made a Rough Calculation of How Many People Die from It but There’s No Way to Check Numbers Like This” isn’t nearly as sexy. If you think that we can determine how many people die of soda each year, that means we can also determine how many people die of not getting enough exercise or eating bacon or going to South by Southwest or any other verifiably unhealthy behavior. And once the number of deaths is figured out, we can demand that policies are enacted to ban South by Southwest or bacon (or at least mandate warning labels be placed on them) on the grounds that it would save that many lives.

The American Heart Association puts out a bunch of studies—in the past several months it’s linked cocaine use to heart attacks and soul food to strokes—but they haven’t calculated how many people die of heart attacks because they eat hush puppies. I bet it’s over 100 in the US alone. In that case, though, it’s totally worth it.