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October 30, 2011

Is Mountain Dew really a lot more dangerous than mary jane?

5.coverThe provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by provocative new research appearing in this forthcoming article due to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention.  (Many thanks to a kind reader for forwarding to me the link to this piece.)  The article carries the title "The ‘Twinkie Defense’: the relationship between carbonated non-diet soft drinks and violence perpetration among Boston high school students."  Here is the abstract:

Objectives: To investigate the association of carbonated non-diet soft drink consumption and violence perpetration in a sample of Boston adolescents.
Methods: In a survey of Boston public high schools, respondents were asked how often they drank non-diet soft drinks and whether they had carried a weapon or engaged in physical violence with a peer.  Regression analysis was used to determine the role of soft drink consumption in these behaviours.
Results: Adolescents who drank more than five cans of soft drinks per week (nearly 30% of the sample) were significantly more likely to have carried a weapon and to have been violent with peers, family members and dates (p<0.01 for carrying a weapon and p<0.001 for the three violence measures).  Frequent soft drink consumption was associated with a 9–15% point increase in the probability of engaging in aggressive actions, even after controlling for gender, age, race, body mass index, typical sleep patterns, tobacco use, alcohol use and having family dinners.
Conclusions: There was a significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence.  There may be a direct cause-and-effect relationship, perhaps due to the sugar or caffeine content of soft drinks, or there may be other factors, unaccounted for in our analyses, that cause both high soft drink consumption and aggression.

I do not recall having ever seen behavioral research that shows a "significant and strong association" between pot consumption (as opposed to pot sales) and violent behavior.  That is why my post title seriously wonders whether those seriously concerned about reducing violent crime ought to be perhaps more interested in pop prohibition than pot prohibition.  

At the very least, this research indicating a "significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence" could and should (1) provide some additional support for a "soda tax" added to all drinks with high sugar and caffeine content, and (2) prompt anyone who has previously criticized Michelle Obama's healthy eating campaign to recognize there could be important connections between reducing unhealthy consumption by young people and reducing violent behavior by young people.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader points me to this 2004 Rand working paper on marijuana and crime, which reviews some prior research on pot and crime and makes lots of interesting additional points.  Here was one notable portion of the Rand discussion:

Overall the findings from the reduced form models would suggest that marijuana use is positively associated with property and income-producing crimes and that no causal association exists between marijuana use and violent crime.

October 30, 2011 at 11:55 AM | Permalink

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Comments

An "association" between two things does not mean "causation". This is a point that is lost on drug prohibitionists. I suspect that the article in Injury Prevention might be a form of satire for the purpose of demonstrating the absurdity of formulating policies based on the mistaken equivalence between correlation and causation.

Posted by: C.E. | Oct 30, 2011 2:48:42 PM

This provides absolutely NO support for a "soda tax." That there is a correlation between soda consumption and aggression shows nothing about causation, and there is already a wealth of empirical evidence about the relationship between (1) poverty and nutrition/obesity and (2) poverty and criminal behavior that provides a much better prima facie explanation for the results of this study than the causal analysis does. Kids who are poorer are likely to drink more soda, because, for example, their parents don't keep food (or healthy food) in the house, so they are more likely to eat junk from the corner store. (This comes from a former BPS student - which is the sample used in the study). Poor kids are more likely to have unstructured activity time after school, which means more hanging out and spending the spare dollar at the corner store. I won't go into the relationship between poverty and criminal behavior here. But I would imagine that POVERTY would be a better way to explain the correlation found in the study than SODA. The idea that mountain dew causes violence and aggression in Boston Public school students is barely more plausible than the rumor that drinking it will shrink a boy's penis, which I'm sure many of us heard when we were around 12 years old. The study, though I haven't bothered to read it, seems like a pointless exercise in finding a meaningless correlation unless there is something substantially more to it than the abstract indicates.

Posted by: Christopher Lewis | Oct 30, 2011 3:09:09 PM

All that is fine and dandy, Christopher Lewis, but even if there is merely a correlation between soda consumption and aggression, why not respond (in part) by driving up the price of soda through a soda tax so that those in poverty are more inclined to make healthier choices?

Both you and C.E. are right that correlation does not prove causation. But the fact that there is even just a correlation here is interesting, and there is surely at least a slim possibility of causation. And especially given that there is no obvious benefit from allowing kids to have CHEAP access to drinks with high sugar/caffeine content, why not impose a tax and see where that gets us?

As all sophisticated consumers of research know, it is really hard to prove causation conclusively in this kind of human behavior setting. But if others were to replicate this research and we see persistent links between soda consuption and aggresive behavior, I do think the argument for increasing the price of soda gets that much stronger.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 30, 2011 5:32:53 PM

Doug,

I'm not against taxing soda. I would be in favor of that proposal. But I don't think this kind of study does anything to strengthen the proposal. The likelihood of causation is miniscule. Imagine that kids from a certain culture or racial group are more aggressive or violent on average. Does that mean we have some reason to tax, say RICE, rather than pasta, if kids from rice-eating cultures are 9% more violent than kids from pasta-eating cultures? Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have higher rates of violent crimes than average. Does that give us reason to impose a special tarrif on Adobo and Sazon?

Miniscule propabilities of causation cannot ground these kinds of policy proposals. There are far too many meaningless correlations we could make between consumption patterns and criminal behavior. If you implemented the reasoning behind your proposal generally, you would be left in a morally absurd and administratively unfeasible situation (to put it mildly).

-Chris

Posted by: Christopher Lewis | Oct 30, 2011 7:13:16 PM

This study is so ludicrous on its face it's humorous. But even if we're to impose a soda tax, how high would that tax need to be in order reduce consumption? My bet is pretty high.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 30, 2011 10:11:54 PM

Considering that Mountain Dew is a color which is only found in nature on poison dart frogs, contains no natural substances, is loaded with high fruitose corn syrup and heavily refined sugar, full of highly addictive caffine, and is loaded which questionably safe artificial colors and flavors some of which have been linked with cancer, probably. But I guess that Professor Berman was not asking whether Mountain Dew the substance is more dangerous than the substance of marijuana.

The influence difference is the question. While I'm obviously not part of Mountain Dew's target audience which appears to be stupid teenaged boys who are into risking their life for entertainment, Mountain Dew has slick television advertisements and sponsors "extreme" sporting events. Now, these advertisements appear to pose Mountain Dew as a gateway drug for risk takers. Which I guess makes sense since Mountain Dew's previous target audience of old people in the rural South is not a viable long term marketing strategy (ask RC Cola or Cheerwine). But the media influence of Mountain Dew is way higher than marijuana - and the intentional positing of Mountain Dew as a part of an "extreme" lifestyle seems to also point to Mountain Dew being more dangerous than marijuana.

steve: "But even if we're to impose a soda tax, how high would that tax need to be in order reduce consumption?"

me: given that I'm pretty sure I would die without Cherry Coke Zero (on the other hand, I wouldn't drink Mountain Dew if you paid me), I'd agree it would have to be very high. Worse, it may well be counter productive - since if I can't get my caffine fix through cola, I'd have to get it through other means - like sugar laden chocolatey and whipped cream laden "coffee" or more likely hot chocolate or those potentially dangerous energy supplement things. I mean, when you see caffine addicts breaking into people's houses to be able to afford a 12 Pack or caffine addicted women prostituting themselves in order to afford their caffine fix, you will know that the tax level has been increased sufficiently to alter behavior.

Having said that, I would not be opposed to having a slight increase in junk food tax - colas, candy, cookies, ice cream, - all those yummy things which are just empty calories. Although a much better policy would be to off set the junk food tax with eliminating the tax on healthy foods entirely. Of course, I guess that would be difficult regulatorialy since someone would have to define what is healthy and what is junk - but really, if the nutritional facts information says "Not a sufficient source of any vitamins or minerals" it should be pretty obvious.

And of course, the Bill Otises of the world would then cry "nanny state" and they'd have a bit of a point (if you ignore the inherent sexism of the phrase "nanny state") since the government would be using tax policy to shape what people eat. But really, people would still go to Krispy Kreme - especially when the Hot Doughnuts Now sign is lit - it would just cost more. But I'm sure that there is absolutely zero chance of there ever being a junk food tax because the heavily processed junk food lobby is way too powerful.

Even if you could prove that Mountain Dew was more destructive than Crack, Heroin, Meth, and PCP all rolled into one, Mountain Dew still isn't likely to be banned or even seeing tax increases because the brand is worth millions and can employ slick lobbyists and run slick advertisements. Soon "You can Have My Mountain Dew when you Pry It Out of My Cold Dead Fingers" bumper stickers would appear on old pickup trucks. Popular Rap Artists would start showing their "dangerousness" to the few people who are simply inheriently scared of rap music because they are inheriently scared of Black people. Teenagers would to participate in the ever popular act among middle class and upper class kids of "being rebellious by buying it" would start wearing Mountain Dew t-shirts and drink it all of the time. The junk food lobby would then set up front consumer groups and tell people that it's perfectly safe to replace your baby's formula with Mountain Dew. They might even start urging people to water the plants with the stuff (this is shamelessly stolen from Mike Judge). And given that Mountain Dew's two biggest customer bases are antigovernment rednecks and teenagers who seek to show their anti-social nature by buying the latest corporate products any governmental action against them would only help them. In fact, maybe this entire study is simply a corporate front action by Mountain Dew - saying "look how dangerous we are, come on government, we dare you to go after us." "Come on, certify us as dangerous and raise our taxes by a few cents - you know, not enough to hurt the market, but enough that we can be certified "dangerous" by the government."

Sometimes I think that I should have gone into marketing rather than law.

ginny :)

Posted by: virginia | Oct 31, 2011 7:46:56 AM

I really love this blog: where else could someone string together Mountain Dew, Bill Otis, shrinking penises and taxes in one set of comments?

Posted by: alan chaset | Oct 31, 2011 9:04:07 AM

Great comments all, and I want to make sure that Chris sees that this soda study controlled for race and some cultural factors (e.g., having family dinners). If we discovered after controlling for race and some cultural issues that those who drink light beers are more violent than those who drink dark beers, I would be all for imposing an extra tax on light beers.

A key point here is that I only want to regulate through targeted extra taxes and the legal marketplace (as we do now with all liquor and tobacco), not through broad prohibitions and the creation of a black market (as we do with pot). I understand the concern that we ought not have our tax policies be driven by associations that do not establish causation. But I also think one does not need to be a statistician to get the idea that providing teenagers with very cheap/easy access to drinks with high sugar and caffeine content is probably not a great idea.

Maybe the best way to operationalize this research would be to say that sound studies showing this kind of correlation put a presumptive burden on the product producer to show corresponding associative benefits from their products to avoid a tax increase. Here, again, the contrast to pot is interesting: lots of sick people assert that pot provides pain-relief benefits superior to legal drugs (and with fewer adverse side effects), and yet that is insufficient to start a serious federal discussion about legalization. If and when the producers of drinks with high sugar and caffeine content can bring out a bunch of folks who assert that CHEAP access to Mountain Dew is essential to their happiness and personal well-being, then I will be less likely/eager to favor a huge soda tax (and, along the way, I will speak out against blanket prohibitions no matter what).

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 31, 2011 9:05:00 AM

Wow. If not a tax, at least prevent those on welfare from buying soda, as proposed by New York mayor Bloomberg.

I remember an alternative school, highlighted in a movie about food industry (either Super Size Me or Food, Inc.), that within two weeks of changing the school's cafeteria to only provide for healthy choices (whole foods), experienced significant behavioral changes. The school was filled with kids already kicked out of the regular high school for behavioral problems.

This hopefully will prompt more research to distinguish between sugar and caffeine.

Whatever you are hopped up on, pot or pop, an altered state of mind obviously affects the mind's ability to make decisions. Anyone who has seen a preschool after a birthday party where kids have just had cake and ice cream has no doubt there is a significant correlation and undeniable causation between sugar and aggressive behavior. We really need research to prove this?

You all must not have children...

Posted by: Mark | Oct 31, 2011 9:45:37 AM

Virgina, love the post. On the healthy food issue, I share your concern about what is and is not healthy due to the amount of misinformation in the marketplace. An article by LifeExtensions magazine highlights this dilemma. See http://www.lef.org/featured-articles/FDA-Says-Walnuts-Are-Illegal-Drugs.htm
A quick overview: Recently, Diamond Foods received a threatening letter from the FDA for claiming health benefits related to walnuts, all based on scientific studies. The FDA claimed that walnuts were not generally recognized as safe and effective, would be labeled as drugs, and therefore, were being misbranded by Diamond.

Mind you, if you have ever eaten a bag of Frito-Lay potato chips you'll see they are marketed as being heart-healthy (because they changed to a less fattening oil to fry them). Go figure...but not only are potato chips dangerous in the way we all know: fatty, fried foods, but there is actually scientific evidence that potato chips are loaded with acrylamydes. According to National Cancer Institute, acrylamide is considered to be a mutagen and a probable human carcinogen, based mainly on studies in laboratory animals. Scientists do not yet know with any certainty whether the levels of acrylamide typically found in some foods pose a health risk for humans.
But they still can be marketed as heart healthy.
The corporate interest in selling junk food, and then having a national health care system for you and I to pay for all the mess it creates, is just one example of how far we really are from a free market system any longer in this country.

Posted by: Mark | Oct 31, 2011 10:07:40 AM

I don't believe that Mountain Dew is the root cause of teenage violence...But disruptive teengaers do the DEW.....Its just a sympom of there behavior in general.. They also drink beer, hard liquer, and smoke Mary Jane and visit Marlboro Country as well.....In general they hit every ave of destruction, some of the areas harder than others....I've seen kids with a 2 liter bottle of Mountain Dew, on ther bike and ho ho's in the basket....Its there snack or lunch...

What are ya gonna DEW.....

Posted by: Josh2 | Oct 31, 2011 10:16:09 AM

@Virginia: Great post!

Posted by: snapple | Oct 31, 2011 11:44:23 AM

The idea of taxing Mountain Dew because it provides no real health benefits (and in fact is probably one of the worst things you can put into your body) is an appealing one.

My problem is that it opens the floodgates for the government to tax plenty of other foods that "everyone knows is bad for you," even though they really aren't.

For example, google "saturated fat" and "heart disease," and only read peer-reviewed, published studies from the past 15 years (not citation-less claims on medical websites) examining the results of a high saturated-fat diet. You might be surprised...

And yet, if we start down the road of taxing "unhealthy" foods, my guess is whole milk and red meat will shortly follow. All thanks to "common sense."

Posted by: Res ipsa | Oct 31, 2011 1:32:34 PM

Ginny,

Shouldn't the nanny state crowd already been complaining about the myriad ways "the government . . . us[es] . . . policy to shape what people eat"? (Start with massive corn subsidies and we can move on from there, but I'm sure you get my point. It would be one thing for the government to back up and allow the free market to determine nutrition/food choices, but they are actually in many ways stacking the deck in favor of junk food and poor health.)

One thing I'm curious about is why the study is restricted to non-diet sodas. Diet sodas can still have lots of caffeine. I'd like to see follow-ups that measure all sorts of sodas. Eventually maybe you could draw some conclusions about possible effects of caffeine, sugar, both, or neither.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 31, 2011 3:25:44 PM

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