News & Commentary

Young, Obese, And Prone to Cancer

This is the squishy-sticky part in a study published last month in Lancet Public Health: “[T]axes on sugar-sweetened beverages, and restriction of advertising for calorie-dense food and soft drinks have yet to be implemented broadly, despite growing empirical evidence for their effectiveness.”

Can you say, “soda tax?” No, not “citizen outrage,” but “soda tax?” Such taxes have stirred up opposition in Philadelphia, the largest city to stick with a soda tax, and elsewhere. Public outcry—and soda industry lobbying—in Cook County caused officials to repeal the tax after two months.

The soda industry is bypassing cities and taking their lobbying efforts directly to states. (Headline in the New York Times last June: “California, of All Places, Has Banned Soda Taxes. How a New Industry Strategy Is Succeeding.”)

With its bit of policy prodding, the Lancet Public Health study coulda, woulda, shoulda, jumped into the soda tax fray, except that wasn’t the truly alarming part. Nor was it the focus. The alarming findings are that millennials are at much greater risk for obesity-related cancers than baby boomers were at the same age.

Hyuna Sung, an American Cancer Society researcher, and her colleagues looked at 12 obesity-related cancers and found that rates were increasing significantly faster among young adults (ages 25 to 49) compared with older ones (ages 50 to 84).

Sung told the Axios news service that “the change in cancer trends among young adults is often considered as a bellwether for future disease burden.”

Sung said that in addition to the adaptation of healthier lifestyles at younger ages, primary care physicians need to screen for body mass index more; less than half do so now.

As Axios put it in one of its bullet points about the study: “Health and wellness are booming, but we’re fatter than ever.”

But, again, what to do?

A study that looked at the Philadelphia soda tax by Stephan Seiler of Stanford, Anna Tuchman of Northwestern, and Song Yao of the University of Minnesota, found that the city’s tax did reduce demand but that people switched to shopping for sweet beverages at stores outside the city. Seiler and his colleagues found that the net result was no decrease in calorie or sugar intake.

Some will respond by pointing to cigarette smoking. The smoking rate hasn’t dropped just because taxes have made cigarettes increasingly expensive. It has been a whole village of factors—Surgeon General warnings; bans at workplaces, restaurants, and bars; lawsuits—and high taxes to reduce the American smoking rate.

A recent report showed that cigarette smoking for U.S. adults declined from 20.9% in 2005 to 15.5% in 2016. The “data are consistent with the declines in adult cigarette smoking that we’ve seen for several decades,” commented Corinne Graffunder, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “These findings also show that more people are quitting, and those who continue to smoke are smoking less.”

So, we’ll see how it goes. Public health is a slow moving creature, partly because there are often so many interests involved.