They've been directly linked to obesity, coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and psychosocial problems – not to mention dental cavities.
Soda and sugary drinks have long been a target of health professionals, organizations and scientists, and now dozens of them are putting that concern in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius that calls on U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin to issue a report on sugar-sweetened soft drinks, in the vein of the office's 1964 groundbreaking report on tobacco.
"Excessive consumption of sugary drinks has devastating effects on the health of young people," reads the letter, citing research that says:
– Each extra soft drink consumed per day was associated with a 60 percent increased risk of overweight children
– 46 percent of 2- and 3-year-olds consume sugary drinks daily
– Type 2 diabetes is becoming more common among teens, especially minorities and low-income teens
– 27 percent of America's youth are ineligible for military service because they are overweight
The letter's signers, which include the American Heart Association, the Childhood Obesity Coalition and the National Hispanic Health Foundation, support the notion that such a report from the surgeon general would "pave the way for policy measures at all levels of government and for widespread voluntary actions in the private sector to improve health and reduce health care costs."
Eleanor Long is the president of the Southern California Public Health Association, another signer of the letter. She says if the current rate of sugary-drink consumption continues, the outlook is bleak.
"We're going to have earlier death; we're going to have more kidney dialysis, more diabetes," she said. "We're going to have people that can't sit in a chair because they're so big. We're going to have a population that is increasingly unhealthy."
Long said preventing children's consumption of the beverages is especially important.
"There's this interesting thing that happens with high-fructose corn syrup: Essentially, it doesn't trigger some metabolic processes," she explained. "Children can drink 1,000 calories of a sugary drink and they don't feel as if they've consumed 1,000 calories. They're still hungry. So essentially it's not working in their bodies to prevent them from overeating."
And, she added, there's data that shows a person who's obese as a 3-year-old will be obese as an adult. There's also data that shows the prevalence of and easy access to unhealthy foods hits low-income communities particularly hard.
"The unhealthy healthy choices as far as diet are very cheap and everywhere," said Long. "A mother who is trying to keep the kids from being hungry would be more likely to give them cheap bottles of soda and chips and things that don't have nutritional value. Plus, she's so overworked and stressed out – that's a quick way to make them happy."
Add to that what she described as a general sentiment among mothers that they are unable to cook healthy food and there's a sort of perfect storm (or spiral) of self-perpetuating, unhealthy eating habits.
Long, who also works as a health education coordinator within the L.A. County Department of Public Health's Maternal, Adolescent and Child Health program, says she hopes the letter helps the surgeon general and political movers "become strengthened" in their opposition to the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
"There's a lot of evidence that each generation is looking for a high," said Long. "For this one, it seems to be caffeine and sugar."