I’m with Jonathan Adler and Ann Althouse: it’s shocking when the tiny bit of governmental advertising designed to encourage us to lead healthier lifestyles is a tenth as dishonest as the huge amount of food-industry advertising that encourages us to lead less healthy lifestyles.
Althouse says she “avoid[s] government propaganda.” I suppose private propaganda is just free enterprise and free speech.
But I don’t see where Alter makes a case that anyone has “politiciz[ed] soda science.” The story doesn’t report on any attempt to pressure scientists to misrepresent their results, or to shape their studies around pre-determined conclusions. This is a case where the health department, having sought scientific advice, decided to skip the footnotes and make an assertion somewhat stronger than the evidence supported.
Kevin Drum is right; the basic assertion that a soda a day equals ten pounds of fat a year isn’t silly on its face. Over the longish term, someone’s weight equilibrium weight is a function of caloric intake and energy expenditure, and an increase of 150 calories per day could sustain about a 10-pound weight gain. A pound of body fat stores about 3500 calories’ worth of energy, and a 12-once Coke has 140 calories. Since 140 * 365 / 3500 = 14.6, so saying that the 10-pound gain could take place over the course of a year is reasonable.
But of course there are lots of potential negative feedbacks (and some positive feedbacks as well), and you’d have to know a lot about the effects of sugared sodas on appetite and activity patterns to make a strong assertion about the effect of drinking water instead of Sprite. Obviously, if the soda calories replaced some other calories, the effect on weight would tend toward zero. And of course individual metabolisms differ, so no assertion will be true of every person.
If the ad had said, “A can of sugary soda has about 150 calories. Adding 150 calories a day to your diet will add about 10 pounds of fat to your waistline,” it would have been reasonably accurate, leaving out all the complexities. At a stretch, the actual version might be defended as an advertising-shorthand version of that almost-true statement.
That said, I’m inclined to be somewhat tougher on the ad than Kevin is, and somewhat tougher on it as an ad from the NYC Health Department than I would be if some private group were running it. What Althouse, from her taxpayer-funded job (just like mine!), denounces as “government propaganda” – attempts by public agencies to communicate with the public – is in fact an essential governmental task. (I look forward to right-wing denunciations of military recruiting ads.) And every time someone learns that a particular official statement was really just a commercial, no more honest than the other commercials, that person’s trust in the entire governmental enterprise takes a small hit. It’s an example of “reputational externality.” (That’s why professional government-haters like Adler and Althouse are so eager to publicize the NYT story: they want us to be entirely at the mercy of commercial advertising, Fox News, and the output of right-wing pseudo-think-tanks, and denouncing “government propaganda” is as important a step toward that goal as denouncing “the liberal media” and “loony-left academics.”)
Compared to the average soft-drink ad, which never mentions that empty calories tends to lead to weight gain or that refined sugars in particular are implicated in the development of metabolic syndrome, the NYC Health Department ad is a model of integrity. But that’s not good enough. We properly hold governments to a higher standard.
Footnote Althouse also needs to go back to eighth grade to study grammar. She is wrong to criticize the add for first saying that drinking sugared sodas makes you “fatter” and then telling viewers not to let that activity make them “fat.”
Uh… you already called us fat when you said drinking soda would make us fatter. The government can’t get the science right. It can’t even get the English usage right.
Neither the comparative nor the superlative form of an adjective implies its absolute form. A person of normal weight is fatter than an anorectic; of three anorectics, the least underweight is the fattest that doesn’t make either of them fat. Althouse is smarter than the average glibertarian; in a contest with two dumber glibertarians she’d be the smartest. But that doesn’t make her … perhaps, in the interests of civility, I should leave the rest of that sentence as an exercise for the reader.
Update Since no one but Kevin Drum seems to have noticed that an earlier version of the post got the relationship between weight and caloric intake wrong, and since Kevin pointed out my error in an email rather than a link, I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting without tracking the changes. Just take it as read that in this one instance my usual omniscience deserted me.