CLARKSDALE, Miss. — Sandra Shelson remembers the iconic 6-ounce Coke bottle, its green glass firmly ensconced in memory as one of childhood’s treasures.
“But then it started getting bigger as we got older,” says Shelson, executive director of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi. “First it was a bigger bottle, then it became a Big Gulp.”
That, in a sentence, is the challenge standing in the way of efforts to curb the caloric intake from sugar-laden beverages: Overcoming a lifetime of habits that have made such drinks a staple in too many American diets. Add in poverty and the limits that imposes on the dietary habits of many, and it becomes a complicated problem manifested in the form of an obesity epidemic.
No better example can be found than the Mississippi Delta, which is why an effort to battle the unhealthy effects of sugary beverages has chosen the region as its newest battleground. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, in conjunction with major beverage companies, announced in Clarksdale recently they will make a four-county area of Northwest Mississippi the newest target of the Balance Calories Community Initiative to reduce the amount of calories and sugar people get from beverages.
The target area of Coahoma, Panola, Quitman and Tunica counties becomes one of five areas highlighted nationally. Communities within Los Angeles, New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas, were the first targets. The two-county area of Montgomery and Lowndes counties in Alabama came onboard the same time as the Mississippi region.
“In an effort to curb the obesity epidemic in the United States, it is critical to reduce the number of calories consumed through beverages,” says Dr. Howell Wechsler, CEO of the Alliance. “Focusing efforts in the Mississippi Delta, where we see some of the highest obesity rates in the country, is a tremendous step forward.”
Breaking the country’s love affair with carbonated soft drinks is an uphill battle. Cities nationwide have tried imposing taxes on soft drinks with limited success. Berkeley, California, passed one in 2014 and in June, Philadelphia became the first large city to impose a tax on sugary drinks. Voters in Oakland, California, will vote on a tax in November.
The giant beverage industry has fought to maintain its grip in the face of changing attitudes toward its product, which has experienced a sales decline of more than 25 percent over the past 20 years. But now, as part of a national agreement reached in 2014 between the Balance Calories Community Initiative and the industry (specifically, The Coca-Cola Company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association), the sides are trying to work together.
The goal is ambitious: Reducing beverage calories consumed per person by 20 percent by 2025. It doesn’t rely on government intervention such as taxation, rather on more subtle tactics such as making low- or no-calorie beverages — and beverages in smaller sizes — more available in stores; providing incentives to try the new options; and displaying calorie awareness messages at points of sale.
It’s important, those driving the initiative say, to understand the mix of actions that can make a difference in changing engrained consumer behavior, preferences and purchases.
“We’re eager to take our Community Initiative into the Mississippi Delta to see how we can drive changes that help people reduce their beverage calories and achieve more balance,” said Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverages Association. “Our companies are putting competition aside and going into communities where the obesity challenge is the greatest to put forward solutions that will make a real difference in peoples’ lives.”
Mississippi consistently ranks atop obesity studies, with the Delta as the worst of the worst. According to the State of Obesity in Mississippi, a study released in September by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the state has an adult obesity rate of 35.6 percent, second only to Louisiana’s 36.2 percent. The figure represents a dangerous and steady climb from Mississippi’s 23.7 percent in 2000 and 15 percent in 1990.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report, “Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption Among Adults — 18 States, 2012” as part of its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The report found that Mississippi residents had the nation’s highest consumption of sugary beverages on a daily basis. Tennessee ranked second.
And a map in the Mississippi Department of Health’s 2016 Action Obesity Plan shows the counties with the highest percentages of obesity are clustered in the high-poverty Delta area targeted by the Alliance initiative. Shelson says that’s no accident.
“Poverty creates food insecurity,” Shelson said. “There’s an abundance of cheap, highly processed food. Add high-sugar beverages — people tend not to count the calories in drinks — and it just exacerbates the problem.”
Shelson said the common image of poverty is emaciated children, but ironically obesity is the more common image in high-poverty areas of this country.
“If you can buy an apple that costs maybe more than a dollar, or you can buy several candy bars for that price,” Shelson said, “which are you going to buy when you don’t have much money? So you end up with bad food choices and sugary drinks. That’s the picture of starving children in this country.”
In Clarksdale, one of the largest cities in the Delta, Mayor Bill Luckett says it’s a problem that is a cause for personal concern.
“As mayor, I am very concerned about the health and wellness of our Clarksdale citizens,” Luckett said. “By working together with (the beverage industry), we can help our citizens be more informed about the beverage calories they consume.”
Neely said that in addition to offering smaller serving sizes in stores, such as 7.5-ounce mini-cans and 12-ounce bottles and cans, their initiative might include tools such as taste testing, sampling programs, coupons and other incentives to sway customers toward lower-calorie products.
“Each company will implement its own strategy and review what engages the consumer, as well as what doesn’t,” initiative organizers said in a statement. “These lessons will be used to improve the effectiveness of the initiative, with the best strategies being applied elsewhere in Mississippi as well as other cities where they might work.”
Shelson said she’s glad to see the beverage industry playing a role in curbing the high intake of its product, but she believes a little healthy skepticism is also in order.
“I’m a little cynical that suddenly this light goes off,” she said. “Keep in mind that they’re doing this because the tide has turned, much as it did with tobacco. But it’s a start.
“And remember, they can still make money. After all, they sell water.”
This story has been corrected to Clarksdale dateline.