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Enough With The Sugary Drinks, Doctors Say

P. Kenneth Burns

They’re a regular sight on the streets of Baltimore; morbidly obese teenagers sipping on some kind of sugary drink.  Medical professionals have said the more of those drinks they consume the more likely they are to have health problems, even while they’re young.

"I've seen my patients, who are eight years old and weigh 200 pounds," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen, a trained emergency room physician.  She said she has also seen teens as young as 15 with high blood pressure and adult on-set diabetes.

Dr. Tammy Brady, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital, helps young patients who have hypertension and obesity.

"It's been remarkable to see how much of that is likely contributing to their obesity and their inability to be successful in the heart healthy lifestyle I counsel them on," she said.

More exercise can help kids live a healthier lifestyle, doctors said, but cutting the sugary drinks out of their diets would go even farther toward reducing childhood obesity.

"We have to target the biggest problems and the lowest hanging fruit," said Wen, referring to sugary drinks.

Setting Public Policy to Guide Healthier Choices

Wen says educating people about the dangers sugary drinks can only go so far. Setting public policies to encourage healthier choices would go even farther, she argues.

Two bills aimed at that died in a House committee during the General Assembly session earlier this year.  One would have repealed the state tax on bottled water sales; the other would have required restaurants to serve drinks such as low-fat milk, 100 percent juice or water with kid’s meals rather than soda.

Wen is hoping the Baltimore City Council picks up the issue.

"Certainly I would encourage city council to look into legislation to sugar sweetened beverages in a variety of city-owned places," she said, "I would also encourage city council to make the default drink in kids meals to be something other than sugar-sweetened beverages."

Corner stores with sugary beverages are plentiful in the city while grocery stores that sell healthier options are not.  A number of neighborhoods are in food deserts, meaning there is no access to a grocery store within walking distance. 

Councilman Nick Mosby says leaders must come up with creative ways to incentivize businesses to serve food deserts and provide healthier options.

"It's really just trying to get the leadership to connect the right dots and provide real access to quality foods," Mosby said.

He added that the only access to fresh produce in food deserts likely comes from the city’s Arabbers, who sell fruits and vegetables from horse-drawn carts.

In the meantime, Sugar Free Kids Maryland, which backed the General Assembly bills, will continue to educate the public on why cutting the number of sugary drinks kids consume is important.

They haven’t decided whether they will try again to push for healthier kid options when the General Assembly returns in January.