Increasingly, when I hear the distinctive pop-and-fizz of someone opening a can or bottle of a soft drink in the office, I get the same uneasy feeling I do when I see someone taking a long drag off a cigarette.

And yet, consuming soft drinks and other sugary beverages in light moderation is OK. After a really hard, sweaty workout, I will refuel with my favorite, a can of Coke over ice. The problem is most people don't consume soft drinks on a special-occasion basis. It's every day. Some of us drink it like water.

'Life's Sweeter' campaign

So with school resuming and all that vending machine action starting to crank up, I was happy to hear of a new campaign, "Life's Sweeter With Fewer Sugary Drinks," launched last week by the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups.

The campaign's website, www.fewersugarydrinks.org, invites individuals and families to take the Life's Sweeter challenge to drink fewer or no sugary drinks.

In a nutshell, the campaign adopts the Heart Association's goal of reducing the average consumption of sugary drinks (including fruit-flavored beverages, sweetened teas and coffees, and energy and sports drinks) to about three 12-ounce servings per week, or about 450 calories per week, by 2020.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, average consumption is now more than twice that -- making sugary drinks the single largest source of calories in the American diet. They also account for half of all added sugars consumed. Sugar-laden drinks play a key role in the obesity epidemic, which is leading to higher rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and stroke, arthritis and certain cancers.

"With new scientific evidence suggesting that drinking more than one sugar-sweetened beverage per day raises the risk of high blood pressure, it's imperative that we do more to help communities kick the soda habit," says Dr. Rachel Johnson, vice chairwoman of the American Heart Association's nutrition committee, noting that making smarter beverage choices can reduce risks for cardiovascular disease.

Making it inconvenient

Last week, I joined a conference call when the campaign was announced and was amazed at the efforts of major U.S. cities in working to reduce consumption.

In October, Los Angeles will start its awareness campaign, and Boston will be removing sugary drinks from vending machines on city properties, which is one simple action that should be taken by any city or business that cares about citizen or employee health.

"Here in Boston," says Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, "we are creating an environment that makes the healthier choice the easier choice, whether it's in schools, work sites or other places in the community."

Other health officials in Philadelphia, San Antonio and Seattle say that reducing soda consumption is one of their top strategies for reducing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. All those cities, plus 110 local and national health organizations, have embraced the Life's Sweeter campaign.

CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson says the campaign seeks to promote the enormous health and economic benefits that would result from drinking less "liquid candy."

"Not since the anti-tobacco campaigns has there been a product so worthy of a national health campaign," says Jacobson.

Industry is not happy

Of course, those who profit from sugary drinks are threatened by such campaigns.

In July, the American Beverage Association, which has fought taxes on sugary drinks, sued New York City for its public awareness campaign on the ills of drinking too much soft drinks.

In response to the CDC statements on sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, the beverage association argued that sugar-sweetened beverages are just one small and declining contributor to Americans' poor state of health.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving health issues like obesity and diabetes," the association says in a statement, highlighting the decline of both sales of full-calorie drinks and U.S. consumption of added sugars.

Biggest consumers

Last week, the CDC released the results of a new survey in which researchers interviewed 17,000 Americans.

The survey discovered that half of the U.S. population drinks a sugar-sweetened beverage on any given day and that teens and young men tend to consume way more than recommended limits for staying healthy.

The survey results show how far consumer habits must change to help fight the nation's obesity epidemic, with nearly two-thirds of Americans either overweight or obese.

The average male in the survey consumed 175 calories in a day from drinks containing added sugar, while the typical female consumed 94 calories from such drinks.

Boys age 12-19 consumed 273 calories a day from sugar-sweetened drinks, or the equivalent of about two 12-ounce cans of carbonated soda -- more than any other group. Men ages 20-39 consumed 252 calories a day from beverages containing added sugar, the second-highest amount.

The survey also found that non-Hispanic black children and adolescents obtained 8.5 percent of their daily calories from sugar-sweetened drinks, higher than the 7.7 percent among non-Hispanic white children and teens and 7.4 percent for Mexican-American youths. The survey also found that lower-income children and adults consumed more daily calories from sugar-added drinks than those with higher incomes.

Soft drink findings

The American Heart Association supports the campaign "Life is Sweeter With Fewer Sugary Drinks" and the goal for Americans to reduce their sugar-sweetened beverage intake from the current average of 10 cans per week to three per week.

As part of a heart-healthy diet, the association recommends limiting sugar-sweetened beverage consumption to no more than 450 calories or 36 ounces a week.

These recommendations are part of a suite of cardiovascular measurements developed by the association to determine if Americans are improving their cardiovascular health by 20 percent by 2020.

AHA research suggests a link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and higher energy intake, greater body weight and poor nutrition.

These studies also report that excessive sugar consumption is playing a role in the epidemics of insulin resistance, obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia and Type 2 diabetes.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are the No. 1 source of added sugars in American diets -- soft drinks along with fruit drinks, energy drinks and sports drinks account for 46 percent of Americans' added sugars consumption.

Most American women should not exceed six teaspoons of added sugars or about 100 calories per day, while most American men should not exceed nine teaspoons or 150 calories per day.

Children and adolescents today derive 10 percent to 15 percent of their total calories from sugar-sweetened beverages and 100 percent fruit juice.

The association is committed to "walking the talk" with its new "My Heart. My Life." comprehensive health, wellness and fitness platform to empower Americans to get healthier. It's an important component of the American Heart Association's sweeping 20-year goal: to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent and to reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20 percent by the year 2020.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postandcourier.com.