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The Drink That Represses

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Last spring, I gave up Coca-Cola. Maybe that sounds like nothing to you, but trust me, for about a week and a half, I felt like Frank Sinatra in The Man With the Golden Arm. I had the shakes, migraines, cold sweats, emitted a peculiar odor and experienced mood swings that made Glenn Beck look like John Foster Dulles. Well, I had been drinking about two six-packs a day, give or take, ever since my grandmother started putting Coca-Cola in my baby bottle. In the Texas I grew up in, Coke ranked right behind Jesus and the A&M football team in order of holy reverence. It was imbued with medicinal powers: When kids suffered stomachaches or nervous spells, we were told to grab a Coke from the icebox and put our feet up. Coke was as much concept as beverage. It wafted over other sodas like the Blessed Virgin, having shaken loose of its literal meaning. Even if you thirsted after Delaware Punch, you still asked for Coca-Cola.

I quit Coke because my blood sugar was teetering perilously close to the diabetic range, and I wanted to keep my teeth past 30. After reading Michael Blanding’s new book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, I realize my teeth were by no means the best reason to dump Coke. For starters, and despite whatever claims Coke might make to the contrary, Coca-Cola most certainly did contain small amounts of cocaine (“coca leaf,” as Coke puts it) from the 1880s, when the drink entered the market, until about 1906. To be fair, the negative health effects of cocaine weren’t fully known at the time—unlike, say, the way we now know that high-fructose corn syrup contributes to childhood obesity and diabetes. Blanding quotes a 2001 study, conducted by nutritionist David Ludwig, that found each soda added to the daily diets of 11-year-old children “increased their chances for becoming obese by 60 percent.” Recently the Centers for Disease Control predicted that “of all children born in the year 2000, one in three will become diabetic in their lifetime.”

Of course Coke isn’t solely responsible for the childhood obesity epidemic. (Texas Children’s Hospital estimates that 40 percent of our state’s children are overweight or obese.) But the world’s leading soft-drink manufacturer deserves its fair share of blame. Coke has advertised to children and young adults—think of the company’s American Idol sponsorship and its TV commercials filled with cuddly cartoon polar bears, not to mention unsavory marketing relationships with public school districts (providing book covers, signing exclusive soda-distribution deals and helping build gaudily branded football stadiums). The Texas Department of State Health Services predicts that 75 percent of Texas adults might be overweight or obese by 2040, with annual costs to the state reaching $39 billion. Considering the consequences of childhood obesity and the addictive nature of caffeinated drinks, Blanding suggests, what’s the difference between cartoon bears and Joe Camel?

But that’s not the half of it. Coke’s behavior abroad has been even worse than its behavior in the United States. During World War II, the company was exempted from sugar rationing because it provided an “essential item” for lifting American morale, with tens of millions of bottles shipped to GIs around the world at taxpayer expense. At the same time, Coca-Cola was doing big business in Nazi Germany. In fact, Fanta was originally produced “using forced labor from concentration camps.” (Much later, Coke did business in apartheid South Africa.)

According to The Coke Machine, Coke has been accused of resorting to murder in its attempts to stamp out unions in Colombian bottling plants, and of exhausting water supplies of the poor in Mexico. In 2003, an Indian environmental group called CSE reported that in that country, Coke “contained residues of DDT and malathion forty-five times the European standard.” Coca-Cola denied the charge until an Indian joint parliamentary committee verified the findings. Coke then rationalized, to quote Blanding, “that hazardous chemicals were endemic to the Indian food and water supply.” (Paging Jim Hightower!) 

So much for teaching the world to sing in perfect har-mo-ny. I’ll admit it, folks. Quitting Coke was pure-D torture, but it’s one aspect of my Texas heritage I’m happy to part with. In a year when we couldn’t dump Rick Perry, at least I’ve managed to rid myself of one cheap product of corporate greed.

Contributing writer Robert Leleux is the author of two books, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving.