February 18, 2009

Here's a sweet tax

There's two things you can't avoid: death and taxes. But now a tax might delay the first.

In New York they are considering a tax on sugar drinks, the scourge of all healthy life. Gov. Paterson is thinking of lumping soda pop with tobacco and liquor, as something "sinful" and thus, needing for his citizens to limit their intake.

I applaud his actions, though, good luck against the Pepsi, Coke and corn lobbyists. Sugary drinks have ZERO nutritional value...at least a Big Mac provides a few nibbles of protein. And it's not like any of these drinks have real plantation-grown sugar. They are just made up of some chemical-lab-born corn syrup.

(A quick story: My aunt in the early 60s would always complain to me about how Coke in the 12-oz. cans tasted different than her supply of the 6.5 oz. real-glass bottles. I thought she was a little nuts, because I couldn't taste the difference, nor could there be a difference. It was all Coke, wasn't it? Later I found out that the little bottles of coke had real sugar, while the new-fangled cans had corn syrup. My aunt knew those laboratory boys were fooling around with her coke.)

If we want to win the war on childhood obesity, one way to start is to tax Mountain Dew, Coke and all the rest.

Here is why. Americans now consume 200 to 300 more calories each day than we did 30 years ago - and a great deal of these extra calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks. A fast-food burger, for all its shortcomings, does have some nutritional value. A 20-ounce soda provides none. And sugar-sweetened beverages now supply 10% to 15% of total daily calories, both in children and adults.

It gets worse. Rigorous scientific studies have shown that consumption of sugared beverages is associated with poor diet, increased rates of obesity and an increased risk of diabetes. In studies where the same people are followed over time, and other studies where people are assigned randomly to reduce sugared beverage consumption, diets improve and subjects lose weight.
Obesity rates in New York State are staggering - 58% of adults are overweight or obese, and the current prevalence of diabetes represents a 50% increase since 1993. When a harmful product is legal, cheap and readily available, a modest tax is the single best way to change behavior.

Yes, we've all heard the complaints from the soft drink industry. I've been an advocate for soda taxes for 15 years - and have heard the special interests cry foul at every turn. Soft drink companies bombarded Maine with money and consultants to successfully overturn a smaller tax there last year.

In fact, in jurisdictions around the country, this debate has unfolded with neatly scripted predictability. In scene one, the industry claims it's just standing up for hardworking taxpayers. To counteract the credible scientific evidence linking sugar sodas to obesity, the industry pays a stable of scientists to write papers saying the evidence is weak, just as the tobacco industry paid scientists who claimed for years that smoking does not cause lung cancer and nicotine is not addictive.


Jill Jayne, MS, RD said...

Taxing worked really well for cigarette smoking, as a deterent and to fund health programming. Efforts for legislation and law suits are often the course of action to call attention to an issue, a successful model is cigarette smoking. But as we get deeper and deeper into the obesity epidemic, can obesity be treated like smoking when there are so many factors that contribute, so many that are personal and so many that are environmental? Many of the students I work with choose soda because it's cheaper. If we could remove this barrier to healthy food, would kids be more persuaded to choose the healthier option? Perhaps if we supplemented the cost of the healthy options, improved nutrition education, and regulating the amount of money that is allowed to be allocated to advertising directed toward kids. There are many factors and it's good to see at least some movement in some areas. I look forward to seeing significant solutions to this epidemic in my lifetime. In the meantime, I'll keep rockin: www.jumpwithjill.com/video.html.

Ralph said...

I'm not convinced obesity is the product of many factors. Up until the 1970s, obesity -- especially in children -- didn't exist. Then fast food restaurants came upon the scene. And why are cokes and hamburgers so cheap. Same reason. The government subsidizes corn production (and before that sugar production). The US has a failed farm policy, and thus a failed food policy in the schools, hospitals, in the food stamp program, etc. And like anything political, the lobbyists are everywhere. Take a look at Health.com. Who's the main sponsors on this website? Coke and Pepsi!! You and I both agree that there cannot be just one solution. But one solution needs to be making fast food more healthy (and start taxing the unhealthy foods).