Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) on Wednesday introduced a bill that would require a mandatory tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in a contentious move aimed at curbing the “dual” crises of obesity and diabetes.
The Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act of 2014, also known as the SWEET Act, would amend the Internal Revenue Code and charge a penny per teaspoon or 4.2 grams of caloric sweetener, which includes sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. (Read the full text here .)
This would translate to about 10 cents per can of soda, and nearly 20 cents for a 20-ounce bottle or most medium soft drinks at restaurants. “(That’s) enough to put a modest dent in consumption, but also enough to raise on the order of $10 billion a year for diet-related disease prevention programs,” said the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a statement supporting the measure.
The funds raised would go toward the Prevention and Public Health Fund, established by the Affordable Care Act, for programs and research designed to reduce the human and economic costs of diabetes, obesity, dental caries, and other diet-related health problems.
“People want to be healthy and they want their kids to be healthy. But we are in the midst of dual epidemics, with obesity and diabetes afflicting our nation and the related, astronomical healthcare costs,” DeLauro said in a news release.
According to the legislation, overweight and obesity are responsible for an estimated $190 bn in healthcare costs nationally, or roughly 5 to 10% of all medical spending—with more than 20% of that paid publicly through Medicare or Medicaid. Exacerbating the problem is that depending on their obesity level, between 60 and over 80% of obese adults have type 2 diabetes, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, or other related conditions.
Sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption is declining (the Centers for Disease Control says calories from SSBs are down 39% since 2000, with USDA reports saying that the average American gets just 6% of his or her daily calories from SSBs). However, Americans are still consuming twice as much of these products as they did in the 1970s. Five percent get at least 567 of their total daily calories from sugary drinks—the equivalent of more than four 12-ounce cans of soft drink.
RD: Most public health victories can take decades to pass
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, applauded the measure in its effort to help level the nutritional playing field, though he’s doubtful of its passage.
“It is unlikely this will pass in Congress, but most public health victories take years, if not decades, to come to pass. Fifteen years ago, we weren't even having this conversation at a national level," he told FoodNavigator-USA. "Regardless of the outcome, I am thrilled to see a political figure addressing the very serious issue of soda consumption, rather than adopt toothless, sanitized, industry-friendly ‘soda has a place in a healthful diet’ rhetoric.”
Soda tax trend declining? Consumers don’t support taxes on common grocery items
Although 39 states already have small, special taxes on sugary drinks, CSPI and other advocacy groups have long been calling for larger excise taxes to effect greater change. This November, San Francisco residents will vote on a proposed two-cent-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugar drinks, and Berkeley, CA, will vote on a proposed one-cent-per-ounce tax. In Mexico, a peso-per-liter tax on sugary beverages has been credited with causing an immediate 5% drop in soda consumption in the country.
But the American Beverage Association (ABA) pointed out that of the 30 states that have introduced or proposed beverage taxes in the past several years, every single one has failed. A recent effort to cap large soda portions in New York was also unsuccessful, with multiple decisions saying it overreached its authority. The proposed cap came under fire from various groups asserting that the government shouldn’t be involved in such issues.
The ABA also noted that taxes and bans have proven unpopular with consumers, citing a 2012 Harris poll that showed 62% of voters oppose a soft drink tax.
“The soda tax is an old idea that has gotten no traction in federal government, states and cities across the US,” ABA senior director of public affairs Chris Gindlesperger told FoodNavigator-USA. “People don’t support taxes and bans on common grocery items, like soft drinks. That’s why the public policy debate in the US has moved away from taxes and bans and onto real solutions.”
He added that the trade group’s members worked with First Lady Michelle Obama, President Bill Clinton and the US Conference of Mayors to voluntarily remove full-calorie soft drinks from schools nationwide, add calorie labels to the front of packaging and on vending machines, and support community programs that promote balanced diets and physical activity.
Voluntary efforts not doing enough; industry needs to be held accountable
But DeLauro and others in favor of the bill point out that voluntary efforts alone don’t appear to be working to address the growing obesity problem.
“I’ve been looking at this issue for a while, and I wanted to get it right," DeLauro told New York Times columnist Mark Bittman this week. "We need to do something about it, and we can’t rely on industry to deal with this voluntarily.”
Bellatti added: “It's been well-documented that the soda industry has poured millions of dollars into blocking any proposed public health policy that would affect its bottom line. If they are referring to the fact that calories are now listed on the front of a soda bottle (as doing their part), that doesn't stand out to me as a particularly brave or novel act."
“DeLauro’s graduated excise tax addresses the problem and supports the solution: by holding manufacturers accountable for creating products loaded with sugar and bereft of nutritional value; and by infusing the Prevention and Public Health Fund with needed resources to prevent chronic disease and promote healthier lives for everyone,” noted Mary Pittman, DrPH, president and CEO of the Public Health Institute, in a statement.
Other groups in support of the bill include the American Public Health Association, National Consumers League, Healthy Food Action, Prevention Institute, California Center for Public Health Advocacy and National Alliance for Hispanic Health.
According to reports from The Hill, DeLauro is in talks with Senate members about a possible companion bill.