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Memo to Pepsi and Coke: Reformulate your unhealthy products!

Apr 18, 2012


Pepsi and Coca-Cola have announced they will reduce potentially cancer-causing caramel coloring from their soft drinks, in order to avoid having to paste warnings on the millions of bottles and cans they sell each year in California. Removing potentially cancer-causing colorings from soft drinks is a good idea, promoted by the Center for Science in the Public Interest . But, the more important question is how can we create sensible policies to prevent disease and promote health for our nation overall. We should not encourage our children or anyone else to drink highly sugared or artificially flavored and colored fizzy drinks that have no known nutritional value and play a role in the rising toll of diabesity around the world today.

In fact, getting artificial coloring out of soft drinks will make them less dangerous in one respect, but, as Mrs. Obama’s campaign makes clear, children need to eat more fruits and vegetables and avoid addictive soft drinks, laden with addictive sugars and artificial ingredients. Artificially colored and artificially sweetened drinks can be especially bad. The dirty secret about diet sodas is that they are appetite stimulants—that drive people to seek more sugars, not less.

We need a global cancer policy that identifies and controls avoidable causes of disease. Chemical contaminants, cellphone and other forms of microwave radiation and other widespread cancer-causing materials should be addressed through a coherent framework that considers populations exposed and the relative risks of those exposures, rather than the chemical of the week syndrome with which we continue to operate. The National Toxicology Program has a long list of tested compounds that increase cancer risk that have not been adequately controlled by appropriate regulatory agencies.

By agreeing to reformulate their products to lower potential carcinogenic levels of MI, Coke and Pepsi are avoiding the specter and costs of posting cancer warnings on labels, as required by the State of California through Proposition 65 listing of carcinogens. But, aside from their potential cancer-causing capacity, soft drinks remain highly problematic per se. It’s a little known fact that the amount of sugars in soft drink was set based on how much sweetener could be added without turning the drink into a solid sugar cube. Regarding MI, in April 2004, the National Toxicology Program reported that MI produced thyroid abnormalities, weight loss, with heavier hearts and kidneys in rats and mice. Some 35 years ago, a Danish law was enacted in 1976 to restrict the use of caramel coloring in food and beverages,c iting a cancer risk. More recent long term studies found that 2-MI increased cancer in experimental animals, leading the state of California to propose acting on this compound. Proposition 65 serves a useful function by identifying cancer risks, but could be more useful if it focused on major avoidable health risks more broadly.

Lurching from one newly identified cancer risk to another does not offer any serious approach to reducing the burden of cancer or other chronic diseases. It is a sad commentary on the limited state of U.S. regulatory policy that a universal health risk of cellphone radiation is not being addressed by regulatory bodies–including California Proposition 65–while specific chemicals continue to be targeted in a one- off manner. In fact, cellphone radiation weakens membranes of all cells, including the protective barrier around the brain. This means that whatever cancer-causing chemicals are circulating in the body will be more deeply taken into the cells and brains of those millions who regularly use cellphones today.

The IARC determination that cellphones and other wireless radiation constitute a “possible human carcinogen”—and a listing as a 2B compound—reflected a near unanimous determination of a group of experts in the field. This assessment was not made idly, although industry would like you to think that was the case. Ask yourself, how it is the case that the majority of things on the IARC 2B list, including engine exhausts, DDT, Kepone, PCBs and other industrial agents, receive serious regulatory attention? Yet, efforts to discredit, dismiss, debunk the science on cellphones have been so successful that this latest view of IARC on a broad-scale issue continues to elude regulatory attention in the U.S. Fortunately that is changing in many nations, given recent Israeli, French, Indian and other government actions.

Israel’s proposed law provides an important step in the right direction that will ban advertising to children, and require warning labels on cellphones. Industry will need to fund educational programs to promote sensible uses and practices and post warnings on all advertisements. In addition, phones will have to include software for indicating levels of microwave radiation being released by phones. In addressing the special risks to children, Israel joins with Turkey and France, which have already limited advertising of cellphones to the young.

In developing priority actions to protect public health, one has to consider the scale of the exposed population and the nature of the risk that is shared. If a relative risk is small but born by the entire population–as with air pollution–then the public implications are enormous. In fact, cellphone radiation appears to double the risk of brain cancer of heavy users in a decade. No other widespread environmental carcinogen—not tobacco, nor asbestos– has had such a short latency with such a large risk. What if the longer term relative risk of brain cancer, sperm damage and reproductive harm prove even greater over time than what’s been found in recent studies? What if risks prove especially higher for those who begin being exposed at younger ages, as are millions of toddlers and younger children today?

We never had universal exposure to smoking, nor millions of child smokers. We do have nearly universal use of cellphones, with nearly six billion phones currently in use and nations like Australia having more than a phone for every person. Rather than await definitive human data on these matters, prudent public policy requires that precautionary steps be taken to control and reduce exposures now, by encouraging people to Practice Safe Phone, using a speakerphone or headset. The downside risk of failing to control cellphone radiation could prove far more catastrophic on a global scale than tobacco.