This winning video contest entry from the Sullivan Family in Nashville, Tennessee, USA is worth sharing for its collective and creative family effort at publicly engaging in the current debate over soda consumption and health. Peter Sullivan, a stay-at-home dad, raps about his soda addiction (“Just Pour It Out!”) while his family begs him to give it up. The video won first-place honors from the Center for Science in the Public Interesta non-profit health advocacy organization that sponsored the contest to increase awareness about the consequences of consuming sugary drinks. In an interview, Sullivan (who once aspired to be a rock star) reports that he beat his soda addiction and now drinks water throughout the day (with minimal consumption of soda). Watch Sullivan and his wife (who happens to be a physician) and his two cherubic children play it up for the camera:

This “fun, creative experience,” as Sullivan describes it points to the tremendous power and possibility of health and media literacy education—especially within families and communities. The ability to creatively produce and actively share media empowers individuals and families on social, economic and political levels. At the same time, this type of creative citizen engagement neither replaces nor exempts the food and beverage industries from their responsibility to produce, distribute and market their products in ways that are beneficial rather than harmful.

The Sullivans’ upbeat video starkly contrasts the macabre headlines about the 2010 death of Natasha Harris, a New Zealand mother-of-eight, who died following a cardiac arrhythmia. News reports read: Natasha Harris Died from Drinking Too Much Coke, Fizzy-drink addict mom dies suddenly,” and “Too much Coke killed mum.” We learned that Harris consumed around 2 gallons of Coca-Cola per day (twice the recommended safe amount of caffeine and more than 11 times the recommended sugar intake). It is not surprising, then, to hear that Harris had several teeth extracted due to decay and at least one of her children was born without tooth enamel. And while a Coke was the first thing she drank in the morning and the last thing she consumed before bedtime, we cannot logically blame Coke for her death. Harris smoked upwards of 30 cigarettes a day, ate very little food, and gave birth to 8 children before the age of 31 (Do I need to mention the stress associated with raising 8 children?). Yet after three years of investigation, the Coroner’s report identifies Coke as a contributing cause of Harris’ death:

“I find that, when all of the available evidence is considered, were it not for the consumption of very large quantities of Coke by Natasha Harris, it is unlikely that she would have died when she died and how she died.”

While it is quite possible that the Harris family is justified in demanding that Coca-Cola put health warning labels on their beverage containers, in this particular case, the response of Coca-Cola representatives makes more sense: 

“In this case, a warning label would not have made much difference. The truth is there would not be a warning label on the planet that would have dealt with this extreme consumption. You can’t label for extremes.”

We cannot necessarily label for extremes, but we can demand easily accessible truth about the high levels of caffeine and sugar comprising many of the sodas on the market, especially those marketed to children and teenagers. Who else is responsible for issuing the warning when an individual is consumed by an ever-expanding list of modern-day addictions (i.e., soda, cigarettes, sex, birthing children, TV viewing, texting, etc.)? Maybe the answer lies within the walls of our own home.

Harris’ partner, Christoper Hodgkinson, and 3 of their children.

For better and worse, the Sullivan and Harris families illustrate just how loud or silent that warning siren can be. Shouldn’t the family unit (whatever its configuration) be the default mediator, reality check, and litmus test for “extreme living” in the 21st century? Let’s look at another statement made by the Coroner in Harris’ case:

“The fact [Harris] had her teeth extracted several years before her death because of what her family believed was Coke-induced tooth decay, and the fact that one or more of her children were born without enamel on their teeth, should have been treated by her, and by her family, as a warning.” 

Harris’ partner, Christopher Hodgkinson, said that prior to Harris’ death, she “had no energy” and “was feeling sick all the time.” She would “get up and vomit in the morning.” She would “get moody and get headaches if she didn’t have any Coke, and also feel low in energy.” Even Harris’ mother stated: “It was her choice to drink Coke. She didn’t like water or tea or coffee, and she didn’t eat much either, and that had a lot to do with it.” In a recent interview, Hodgkinson acknowledges in hindsight that the warning signs were definitely there:

“We used to joke about that Coke would do harm to her, I suppose, but I didn’t realize that it actually would. . . that’s just what she drunk. She just had to have it. . . Definitely people need to get aware of what it can do, especially  towards what it could be doing to small kids.”

What if a family sees the warning signs, but is not compelled to act? Neither Harris nor her family members possessed critical health literacy—which is more than understanding the physiological dangers of smoking and drinking soda (although that’s a start). Critical health literacy is also about understanding the social, economic and political determinants of health—and then doing what it takes to achieve good health. Clearly some families are more at risk for poor health—and fast food and soda companies do harm by compounding that risk through targeted marketing. We can start by empowering individuals with the skills and dispositions—the media literacy—needed to actively seek out good health—both within their families and their communities. We need to continually keep watch—and make sure that if our critical (yet constructive) eyes are on the practices of the food and beverage industry, that they are also keeping vigilant watch over those who are literally closest to us. And then act accordingly.

If you don’t believe me, then believe Martha Payne, who has taught me that even one person with concern for others can make the world a more healthy and media-literate place.

Read more about these ideas in Dr. Domine’s 2015 book, “Healthy Teens, Healthy Schools: How Media Literacy Can Save Education in the United States” (New York: Roman & Littlefield).

Media Literacy Education, Families & the War on Soda