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‘Soda wars’ tactics are reminiscent of earlier ‘lead wars,’ historians find

lead paint can photo
Starting in the 1920s, the lead industry organized to fight bans, restrictions, even warnings on paint-can labels.

Many public-health officials and others have argued that the soda industry is borrowing heavily from Big Tobacco’s playbook as they scramble to keep their public image “healthy” and to forestall government relations and taxes on their sugary products, which have become increasingly linked to the obesity pandemic.

But could the soda industry also be following in the footsteps of the lead industry?

That’s the argument made by historians David Rosner of Columbia University and Gerald Markowitz of the City University of New York in an article published online Monday in the Atlantic magazine. The two men have written a book, “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children,” and some of the details of that story — the blaming of parents, the muddying of scientific findings, the marketing to kids, the claims that voluntary regulations are enough — seem eerily similar to  today’s “soda wars.”

Here’s an excerpt from the Atlantic article:

Since the 1920s, the lead industry had organized to fight bans, restrictions, even warnings on paint-can labels. It had marketed the deadly product to children and parents, spreading the lie that lead paint was safe. For decades, paint ads appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, and other national magazines and local newspapers. Coloring books were handed out to children. The industry even sent Dutch Boy costumes to children on Halloween. …

When public health officials in New York, Baltimore, and Chicago tried to enact regulations in the 1950s that threatened the industry’s interests, lobbyists visited legislators and governors to get restrictions lifted. They succeeded. When Baltimore’s health department called for the removal of lead from paint, the industry countered by proposing and winning a “voluntary” standard, reducing the lead content in paint. When New York City’s health department proposed a warning label saying that the product was poisonous to children, the industry rejected the “poison” label and lobbied successfully for another label that simply advised parents not to use it on “toys, furniture, or interior surfaces that might be chewed by children.”  …

The lead industry even sought to place the blame for lead poisoning epidemic on parents and children, claiming that the problem was not with the lead paint but with the “uneducable Negro and Puerto Rican” parents who “failed” to stop children from placing their fingers and toys in their mouths. Children poisoned by lead, the industry claimed, had a disease that led them to suck on “unnatural objects” and thereby get poisoned.

But the industry wouldn’t remove all lead from their products. It fought every attempt at regulation. … All this despite records that show that the industry knew that their product was poisoning children.

Lead levels dropped by 90 percent

Finally, in 1978, after many local governments had passed their own ordinances restricting lead in household paint, the federal government took action and imposed a ban of its own. Lead in gasoline was also gradually phased out.

As a result, the average blood lead levels in U.S. children aged 5 and younger has dropped by about 90 percent since the late 1970s. That’s been truly great news for America’s kids. Lead is a neurotoxin. Its accumulation, particularly in children, can lead to many brain-related complications, including seizures, lethargy, behavior and learning problems, and reduced IQ. It can also cause death.

“We still have children suffering from lead’s effects,” write Rosner and Markowitz, “but at least kids no longer convulse and die.”

‘We will be sacrificing a generation’

As the two historians point out, the New York City Board of Health banned the sale of lead paint early, in 1959. It’s now taking a leading role in trying to stem the obesity epidemic. The board has required fast-food restaurants to list the calories in their food items, and more recently it tried to limit the size of soda servings. (That action was struck down by a judge, but is going to be heard by an appellate court in June.)

“Whatever the legal niceties are regarding ‘what is an epidemic,’ ” write Rosner and Markowitz, “the reality is that we will be sacrificing a generation of children to the consequences of obesity if health agencies don’t begin to take action.”

You can read their article on the Atlantic magazine website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/23/2013 - 10:10 am.

    What’s good for business

    …is assumed to be good for the public. Ignore all the evidence to the contrary.

    “Corporations have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be concerned, they therefore do as they like.” — …Edward Thurlow, Lord Chancellor, 1731-1806

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