Study Links Soda to 25,000 U.S. Deaths Per Year; Industry Strikes Back

And now for some serious news: a large-scale study conducted by Harvard University‘s School of Public Health and the American Heart Association and released this week links sugary beverages more explicitly than ever before to mortality due to diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers. The soda industry barely finished celebrating its recent victory over New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s proposed big serving ban, and now it faces an even bigger PR challenge.

Some details: The study, completed over a five-year-span with data collected during the 2010 Global Burden of Diseases Study, found a “causal” link between soda consumption and 180,000 deaths around the world in the year 2010. That total includes 133,000 deaths from diabetes, 44,000 deaths from cardiovascular diseases and 6,000 deaths from cancer.

While Caribbean/Latin American countries had the highest rates of death by soda, researchers tied the fizzy stuff to 25,000 yearly deaths in the United States alone. The study’s lead author Gitanjali Singh says that he thinks “cause” is an appropriate word in this case. The soda industry, of course, does not — and they want the public to know it.

The American Beverage Association, a trade group representing various sugar peddlers, must have anticipated the announcement: the organization quickly responded to the study’s results with a statement effectively calling shenanigans on the whole project.

The ABA’s criticism amounted to this: the study, which has not been peer-reviewed, “is more about sensationalism than science”. It cannot demonstrate causation, only correlation (like the fact that Mexico, which has the world’s highest rate of soda consumption, also happened to have the highest rates of death due to supposedly related conditions). The statement goes into further detail about the fact that many other factors (age, ethnicity, weight, exercise habits, etc.) play a role in determining who suffers from these conditions — and that people who drink soda can be perfectly healthy as long as they eat well, exercise, avoid tobacco and moderate their sugar intake.

Sound familiar?

These points are certainly valid, but the Harvard project is hardly the first to link the regular consumption of soda to obesity — which very clearly causes type 2 diabetes. The ABA’s “you can’t prove it” statement probably won’t diminish the effect of the study among segments of the public who are already skeptical of Big Soda.

Soda makers are in a bind — they want to encourage the public to buy even more of their key product while simultaneously telling us that it’s probably not such a great idea to do so. So how can the biggest names in carbonated sugar water fight this news? (We don’t think the “Calories Count” project is going to cut it.)