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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Coca-Cola Life: a Wolf in a Green Container

After testing the waters in Argentina, Chile and the U.K., Coca-Cola will soon be breaking out a new “natural” and “healthy” soda in the U.S. called Coca-Cola Life, a product sweetened with a combination of sugar and stevia. With a considerable reduction in calories over regular Coke (89 calories versus 139), it is being touted as a low-calorie, naturally sweetened beverage. And Coke Life is all bundled up in nice green trappings to hit home the idea that it’s clean, fresh and, by golly, healthier for you. But is it?

To begin with, Coke Life is served up in a “PlantBottle,” a recyclable container composed of 30% vegetable fiber. However, production of this container involves using excessive amounts of water, and being non-biodegradable, these “PlantBottles” only add to our landfill problems.

Surprisingly, stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar, so a little bit goes a long way. Just what we need in this country . . . for us to grow that sweet tooth even bigger!

Though stevia is deemed a safe product by the FDA, from what I have read, there are some side effects to consider, ranging from nausea/bloating, dizziness, muscle pain to a severe allergic reaction. Stevia can lower the blood pressure for people on blood pressure meds, which is dangerous if you already have low blood pressure. It can interfere with blood sugar control so is not recommended for those taking medications to treat diabetes. And women who are breast feeding need to be aware that stevia is not approved for infant consumption.

So is Coca-Cola trying to pull the wool over the eyes of health conscious consumers? From past experience, I would venture a “yes” to that.


Monday, June 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Battles

Teen pregnancy is coming up roses. Recently published federal data show the U.S. teen birth rate hit a new low in 2013. The teen birth rate in California also continues to decline sharply, decreasing nearly 60% between 1995 and 2012. Naturally, there has been some interesting speculation on what’s driving down the pregnancy rate, including increased Medicaid funding for family planning and teens using more effective forms of contraception.

These findings seem to validate public health programs that advocate for sexuality education in schools and safe sex messages. However, with all the focus on declining teen pregnancy rates, we can’t forget about another battle in the field of adolescent sexual health – sexually transmitted infections (STIs). One county in Northern California, for example, has one of the highest concentrations of chlamydia and gonorrhea among young people, and the number of cases of STIs is on the rise. “Effective contraception” isn’t translating into increased condom use. The fear of judgment for STIs can be greater than for teen pregnancy - everyone wants to prevent an STI, but not everyone necessarily wants to prevent pregnancy. Teens may also have family and community support in raising a child but feel highly stigmatized if they contract an STI.

So maybe we need different, more innovative approaches when it comes to addressing STIs. My residency at Brown:Miller Communications this summer will focus on one such approach - how we communicate with young people about this issue, including how to message about STIs from the standpoint of respect, social norms, healthy relationships and sexual dynamics and how to develop a communications strategy that shifts the focus from STI prevention to health promotion.

Pregnancy and disease are not the same issue, but this is still the tale of two battles. The outcome of one is linked to the other, with success in one area inextricably connected to success in the other. We have our work cut out for us – let’s get started.

~ Leena

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

American Heroes or Kings of Sleaze?

Most Americans have fond memories and warm emotions when they see the Coca-Cola logo. Some probably even cry just a little bit when they witness a dramatic commercial like “America the Beautiful” during the Super Bowl. For over a century, Coca-Cola has framed itself as a symbol of the United States – Americana in its purest form. This decades-long campaign is the perfect marketing ploy and absolutely ingenious. It’s also killing us.

A product that quite literally marketed itself as a medication fueled by cocaine has transformed into the spirit of our nation. Unfortunately, this spirit is an illusion. Behind the comforting red script, the familiar Santa and the heartwarming polar bear is a force that simply does not have the American people in mind.

The industry may say “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” but we must. We've all seen this story before; all you have to do is think back fifty years to when it was socially acceptable to smoke regularly.

Sugary drinks are uniquely responsible for the tripling in diabetes rates seen over the past three decades in the United States. Coca-Cola and friends are fueling an obesity epidemic that will lead to heart disease, metabolic disorders and thousands of fatalities a year. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight today, and one in ten have diabetes.

These findings are not just correlations or conjectures. Accepted medical science shows that the liquid sugar in sodas is processed into fat in the liver, leading to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance. This in turn causes diabetes. That’s why the California Medical Association and over one hundred public health organizations have joined together to call for a warning label on sugary drinks, just like the ones added to cigarette cartons fifty years ago. Local advocates in Berkeley and San Francisco have also taken steps to tax sugary drinks to fund obesity prevention.

According to Dr. Simon Capewell of the University of Liverpool and a growing body of research on the war on smoking, Big Tobacco used a six-part strategy called “SLEAZE” to protect their interests. Now, we see the American Beverage Association and their countless front groups, paid for by Coca-Cola and a handful of other manufacturers, borrowing from the same playbook.

Their tactics are clearly apparent if you take a moment to scroll through @CartChoice, their hilariously misleading Twitter page:

Scientific conspiracies are alleged, suggesting that the data is unclear, when in reality the entire scientific community agrees on findings.
Logical flaws are used to make their case, yet those catchy phrases are factually incorrect. (Hint: SB 1000 does not cost anyone anything – the link they reference is an editorial opposing a different bill. Apparently, they failed to read past the first sentence.)

Evidence is selected to match their argument, while ignoring all conflicting evidence. (Hint: Sugar is not sugar. Different forms are processed differently by the body and influence hunger, depending on the source).

Absolute perfection is demanded of public health advocates.

Zany arguments, distractions and gimmicks misdirect the public towards a straw man. (Hint: Warning text would cost manufacturers and consumers nothing and wouldn't force you to do anything. Yet industry paints a picture of a “big government” out to get you. The cigar industry still uses this tactic.)

"Experts" are bought in to undermine science.

And finally, I will introduce two additional tactics.

They make consuming their product look sexy and fun.

And they use popular spokespersons to push their political agenda.

Look familiar?


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Yet Another Reason to NOT DRINK Soda

So you’ve heard all the reasons not to drink soda and other sugary drinks – right?
Leaking soda cans
Guess which one leaked?
Doesn't really matter because before
long they will all probably leak.

But just to refresh your memory, soda and other sugary drinks are a major cause of diabetes, tooth decay and a host of other ailments.

But here is something else to consider. About a year or so ago we bought a bunch of sugary drinks for a photo shoot. Those bottles and cans have remained on a shelf in the office just in case we needed them again.

Well, over the last year the soda appears to be eating through the aluminum cans. First one, then another and now a third can this week.

Soda as well as many other sugary drinks contains citric and phosphoric acids. Given enough time those acids will eat through just about anything. (I use citric acid regularly as a great rust remover).  But even when the acids haven’t eaten through the container, it is slowly eating away at the container and dissolving the aluminum into the drink.  Exposure to aluminum isn't usually harmful, but exposure to high levels can cause serious health problems like muscle weakness, bone pain, seizures and even slow growth in children, among a host of other maladies. 

I wonder if someone has done a study on just how much aluminum is being dissolved into drinks and the effect it might have on people drinking them.

In the meantime, a glass of water is looking better than ever.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Do everything you can not to get diabetes. It is deadly.

I'm terrified about getting diabetes. I admit it. Twice I was in the hospital and both times I shared a room with a patient who was getting a leg amputated. Diabetes. In one case neither the patient nor her family had any idea that diabetes was to blame.

Here's the thing about this deadly disease: for 95 percent of the population, diabetes is preventable. That's right. Preventable!

For those who have it, however, the list of complications is long and horrible. It includes blindness, kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, amputations and premature death. 

This week a groundbreaking new study was released from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy that should have you worried too.

According to the study, one out of every three patients in California hospitals has diabetes. Diabetes adds an extra $1.6 billion (that's right, billion) every year to hospitalization costs in California. Three-quarters of that care is paid through Medicare and Medi-Cal. That means we all pay.

But back to prevention, first, everyone should insist that their doctor screens them for diabetes. Early detection is the key to controlling the disease if you are unlucky enough to get it. Second, sugar, especially liquid sugar in sodas, energy, sports and other beverages, is a huge contributor to diabetes. So cut out -- or greatly reduce -- consumption of these beverages. And third get more exercise!

If you want to know more about diabetes and how you can prevent it go to

Thursday, May 8, 2014

One of the World's Top Brands Making Customers Sick

Does anyone else find it odd that a company that makes so many of its customers sick was named one of the world’s top brands?

That’s right, I’m talking about Coca-Cola. Although it’s now the third most valuable brand, according to the 2013 Best Global Brands report, it remains the world’s most recognizable brand. The report states: "Coca-Cola achieves impressive global presence through standout ad campaigns, bold design, digital savvy, and a simple, universally relevant theme that weaves throughout the brand's communications: happiness.”

But shouldn't the harm a company’s products are doing be one of the factors considered in this survey?

This message of “happiness” seems to pull a veil over consumers’ eyes, making them forget all about how much money the company is raking in at the expense of their own and their children’s health. This is especially true for communities of color. They are the most heavily advertised to, and low and behold, also feeling the effects of diseases that are exacerbated by poor diet the most.

It’s easy to see how masterfully Coca-Cola can connect with consumers when you watch the heart-warming videos the company spreads around social media, but videos such as “Perfect Soldiers” by Gabriel Cortez tell the real story.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Other Talk

Is it time for you to sit down with your children and have “the talk”? No, I’m not talking about the one when your pre-teen rolls their eyes. I’m talking about the other one, the one when you hand them the keys, figuratively, and talk about your later years.

I’m not sure I know anyone who likes to think about dying, but there’s only one statistic that I can stand by, and that is: 100 percent of us will experience death.  I can ramble on about how 70 percent of people ages 65 and older will need long-term care, but if you’re like me, I ignore it and hit the denial button: It Won’t Happen to Me. And you may be the lucky one. These emotional reactions are common but I’m hoping to at least get you to start thinking about who this affects and how to ease some of the heavy physical, emotional and financial burden before a health crisis hits.

It is important to sit down and have a conversation with your children or loved ones. This is a process, and you may have to sit down more than once to help them understand your wishes. This is your chance to talk, cry about and learn from each other about the aging process. It requires honesty and collaboration to help cope with the emotions that may arise with the role reversal of becoming the caregiver.

Taking this step is important. There are emotional challenges of long-term care, but having this talk can empower your children to make better decisions. Here's a list of questions to help you get the conversation started. 

While this can be difficult, there is satisfaction in knowing you've helped set the stage to help your children be empowered to make the right choices when the time comes. In the meantime, focus on living life and making memories.