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New report makes the case for nationwide soda tax

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 21-Sep-2009

The idea of taxing sugary beverages to reduce obesity and bring public health benefits has been raised again in a new report published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The paper is a collaborative endeavor from a number of key proponents of soda taxes, including Dr Kelly Brownell, who has previously compared the food and tobacco industries, and Dr Barry Popkin, author of The World is Fat, which discusses the link between obesity and increased consumption of sugary drinks.

This new paper states that current soft drink taxes – in place in 33 states – are too small to affect obesity rates. They stand at an average of 5.2 percent, and the revenues generated are not fed back into public health programs.

The authors recommend a one cent tax per ounce, which they say would lead to a 15 to 20 percent increase in soft drink prices and, if implemented across the US, “would raise $14.9bn in the first year alone.”

By examining the effect of price elasticity on purchasing habits, the authors predict that consumption of calories from soft drinks would decrease by at least ten percent. This would amount to a reduction of 20 calories per person per day, which they claim is significant for weight loss.

“The benefit would be larger among consumers who consume higher volumes, since these consumers are more likely to be overweight and appear to be more responsive to prices,” they wrote.

Diet soda

As for non-caloric sweeteners, the authors wrote that there is presently no consistent link between diet soda consumption and ill-effects on health, although it has been suggested that it may lead to greater consumption of calories from other sources by promoting a preference for sweet tastes.

“At present, we do not propose taxing beverages with noncaloric sweeteners, but we recommend close tracking of studies to determine whether taxing might be justified in the future,” they wrote.

Proposed soda taxes – such as the 18 percent tax proposed and abandoned in New York – have generated vociferous debate and the authors attempt to address some of the most commonly raised concerns.

Beverage industry response

They wrote that opposition from the beverage industry is to be expected, like PepsiCo’s threat that it would move its corporate headquarters from New York State if a soda tax were imposed. They compared industry’s response to that of the tobacco industry when it was fighting the imposition of taxes, stating: “The tobacco industry fought policy changes by creating front groups with names that suggested community involvement. The beverage industry has created Americans Against Food Taxes. These reactions suggest that the beverage industry believes that a tax would have a substantial impact on consumption.”

The authors also defended the idea that a soda tax would be regressive, stating that the poor have the most to gain from the tax if revenue is ploughed back into obesity programs, and that there is a low- or no-cost alternative – tap water.

Additionally, they dispute the allegation that a soda tax would be ineffective and discriminate against responsible consumers.

They wrote: “Reducing caloric intake by 1 to 2 percent per year would have a marked impact on health in all age groups, and the financial burden on those who consumed small amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages would be minimal.”

The full paper is available here .

Source: New England Journal of Medicine

10.1056/NEJMhpr0905723, published online ahead of print

“The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages”

Authors: Kelly D. Brownell, Thomas Farley, Walter C. Willett, Barry M. Popkin, Frank J. Chaloupka, Joseph W. Thompson, and David S. Ludwig.

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