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Should Celebrities Help Fight the Global Health Crisis?

July 18, 2013

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Retired NBA basketball player Shaquille O’Neal has been in the headlines lately, and not for his entertaining appearances as a sports analyst. As detailed by the LA Times, Shaq is instead under fire for launching a new line of soda in partnership with Arizona Beverages.

Unlike most conventional soft drinks, the Soda Shaq Cream Soda line will contain no artificial flavors or preservatives and will be sweetened with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. The soda is being promoted as low-calorie and all natural. As the press release promises, “Fans can satisfy their soda craving without the guilt.”

If guilt-free soda sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is – Shaq’s drink is anything but healthy. A serving has “only” 90 calories, but each 23.5-ounce can contains three full servings – that comes to 270 calories and a whopping 72 grams of sugar. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there are 17 full teaspoons of the white stuff in a single can.

Though one could argue that Shaq is free to endorse whatever kind of products he likes, it was only last year that the athlete emerged as a vocal advocate of diabetes prevention. In an interview with CNN, he said, “It’s alarming. We need to come together to try to help prevent the issue and stay healthy. Childhood obesity is getting worse. People need to know the problem isn’t going to go away unless we take control now.” He personally eats a salad for lunch every day, limits his carbohydrate intake, and treats himself to his favorite brownies only occasionally.

So why would Shaq endorse what is clearly known to contribute to the global health crisis? Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, “Clearly, Shaq knows better. He has said he avoids soda himself, and worries about obesity and diabetes. But now he’s using his name, face, and reputation to make those health problems even bigger. It’s shameful hypocrisy, presumably motivated by money.”

This isn’t the first time a celebrity has been criticized for endorsing junk food. After participating in Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity, Beyonce was attacked when she signed a $50 million promotional deal with Pepsi, a company long known to advertise sugary drinks to children. But Beyonce isn’t alone; Madonna, Lebron James, Britney Spears, and David Beckham are of a long list of celebrities that have lent their faces to soda advertisements. Even Elvis endorsed Coca Cola in his day.

During a time when 1 in 3 American adults are obese and rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other preventable chronic illnesses are skyrocketing, it’s a shame that more celebrities aren’t using their considerable talent and influence to promote healthy living campaigns and organizations.

What do you think of celebrities endorsing soda and other junk food?