Confessions of a (Diet) Cokehead

Jun 25, 2015 | Autobiographical, Health & Wellness (Physical)

Published: Good Men Project (June 25, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa discusses his love of soft drinks… and how he was tricked into believing they were safe.

Until recently I’d never seen Coca-Cola’s iconic “Hilltop” ad… but then again, I didn’t need to. I’ve always considered the sensation of having an ice cold drink slide down your throat to be one of life’s greatest simple pleasures, and among the numerous beverages out there, my preference has always been for 20 oz. bottle of Diet Coke. Some may gravitate to it because it claims to contain zero calories (although if this were true, wouldn’t Coke Zero be superfluous?) but for me the appeal has more to do with the taste than any dubious health benefits. A Diet Coke has just the right combination of sweetness and bitterness to please my palate,  particularly on humid summer days (such as the one captured in the picture above).

That said, I’ve never been entirely oblivious to the dangers of soft drink consumption. Now, thanks to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), whatever shred of denial I may have clung to about my love affair with Diet Coke has dissipated.

In a parody of the aforementioned “Hilltop” ad, CSPI shows actors singing about the joys of drinking cola – followed swiftly by the obesity, diabetes, and other major health issues that have resulted from their habit. In a press release explaining the video, CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson explained that “for the past 45 years, Coca-Cola and other makers of sugar drinks have used the most sophisticated and manipulative advertising techniques to convince children and adults alike that a disease-promoting drink will make them feel warm and fuzzy inside. It’s a multi-billion-dollar brainwashing campaign designed to distract us away from our diabetes with happy thoughts. We thought it was time to change the tune.”

I’ve never been entirely oblivious to the dangers of soft drink consumption. Now, thanks to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), whatever shred of denial I may have clung to about my love affair with Diet Coke has dissipated.

The medical community certainly sees eye-to-eye with CSPI on this one. According to Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, people who consume more than 1 to 2 cans of sugary drinks on a daily basis are 26% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, while even drinking one such beverage every day increased their likelihood of having a heart attack by 20%. WebMD notes that soft drink consumption can also be linked to kidney damage, elevated blood pressure, and various forms of cancer, while oral hygiene advocates from the National Center for Biotechnology Information to the Wisconsin Dental Association have drawn attention to the ways soft drinks erode tooth enamel and cause decay. There is even a controversial study by Hannah Gardener, ScD, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, which found that individuals who drank diet soda regularly were 48% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. And that doesn’t even begin to mention the alleged dangers of aspartame.

In short, the parody of the “Hilltop” ad is far more truthful than the actual commercial itself. That fact shouldn’t surprise anyone who already has a healthy suspicion of corporate America, of course, but the question still needs to be asked:

Why don’t we view soft drink consumption as a public health epidemic, akin to smoking cigarettes or eating fast food?

My guess is that, at a time when every enjoyable diversion gets roundly condemned as a health hazard, many of us have decided to tune out the negative information. Even when we concede that our health advocates are right (and many choose denial over accepting the unpleasant truth), there is a temptation to succumb to hedonistic fatalism. If everything good is going to kill me, the reasoning goes, then why bother changing my habits at all? If life is short anyway, why not choose quality over quantity?

There is no easy rebuttal to this point-of-view. Everything worth having in life comes with considerable risk – sometimes to your physical health, sometimes to your psychological or emotional well-being, sometimes financial or social. A life spent avoiding all risky behavior would indeed be quite bland, to say nothing of neurotic. That said, most of us navigate our way through these various hazards by picking our battles, avoiding the dangers that seem too acute to be worthwhile while accepting the price when our love for X outweighs our awareness of its detrimental consequences.

If we are to make progress in spreading awareness of soft drinks, we need to begin by letting people know that the risks associated with them aren’t mild ones. Videos like CSPI’s “Hilltop” parody are a great way to start, but to be truly effective we need to change the way we look at our sodas. When you buy a can of Coca-Cola or a bottle of Mountain Dew, you are taking no less of a risk than if you were purchasing a pack of cigarettes or a baggie of actual cocaine. The specific health hazards may differ, but the net risk is the same – and since I personally avoid cigarettes and cocaine because of the health risks, it stands to reason that I should do likewise with my beloved Diet Cokes.

For this realization, I have to thank CSPI. After all, if it wasn’t for their video pointing out the dishonesty of how soda companies advertise their product, I wouldn’t have thought to do the research on this subject.