Tax soft drinks and snacks to fight childhood obesity, says IOM

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Childhood obesity, Nutrition, Obesity

The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council have recommended taxing high-calorie, low-nutrient food and drink in order to combat childhood obesity, in a new report released on Tuesday.

The report, entitled Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity,​ also suggests that local authorities consider giving tax breaks to grocery stores that open in underprivileged neighborhoods, create bicycle lanes and require restaurants to carry calorie counts on their menus, among 14 recommendations, eight of which focused on food policy.

“We want the healthy choice to be the easy choice,” ​said Dr Eduardo Sanchez, chair of the panel that wrote the report, and vice president and chief medical officer of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. “Sometimes it’s important to be cognitive about the behavior that you are engaged in but too much of what we do is automatic and it’s not always the healthiest automatic thing to do.”

The tobacco link

Also on the report panel, dietician and professor at the University of Minnesota Mary Story made the link between taxing junk food and taxing tobacco, saying that large increases in tax on tobacco had been the most effective policy in reducing use.

"A ten percent increase in the price of a sugar-sweetened beverage could reduce consumption by eight to ten percent,”​ she said.

The idea of taxing nutrient-poor foods and beverages like sugar-sweetened soft drinks and candy has been repeatedly raised as a possible way to tackle obesity. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine​ argued that taxing non-diet soft drinks would lower consumption and produce savings in health care provision that would more than offset the taxes themselves, while a report from nonpartisan policy research organization Urban Institute in July called for lessons to be learned from the success of tobacco taxation to curb its use.

“Menu of options”

Dr Sanchez added that the study was intended to give a range of ideas for communities to encourage children to eat more healthily and move more, and that local governments have a crucial role to play in fighting childhood obesity.

“We tried to provide a broad menu of options in this report, a menu that local communities can have a look at and determine what might work best in their community,” ​he said. “…We also realized that there is a balance to be achieved in the food environment side of this discussion, that is, making sure healthy foods are available and consumed and thinking about how to reduce consumption of less healthy foods, both being able to contribute to a positive outcome.”

According to the IOM, the percentage of American adolescents who are obese has tripled over the past 35 years, rising from five percent to almost 18 percent. A report published in Health Affairs​ in July estimated the medical cost of obesity at $147 billion in 2008.

The IOM is a private, non-profit institution.The study was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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