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As White House tackles obesity, lawmakers eye soda as culprit

Is the soda tax making a comeback?

After an initial wave of interest last year, lawmakers across the country backed away from the idea, fearing public anger over the economy. Congress shelved a proposal to pay for health care reform with a soda tax. Legislative leaders in Mississippi quashed the idea. And New York Gov. David Paterson, one of the most vocal advocates of a tax on soda, was rebuffed by the state legislature two years in a row.

Now, a White House task force on childhood obesity has suggested that states might experiment with taxing soda as a way to curb consumption, and advocates of the idea are claiming renewed momentum. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is pushing aggressively for a similar measure, and lawmakers in California are mulling a proposal that would peg the rate of the tax to the amount of sugar in a given beverage.

Lawmakers who support a tax on soda have been cheered on by public health officials, who say curbing the consumption of carbonated beverages would help hold down skyrocketing rates of obesity, especially among children. According to a recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 16 percent of children and adolescents ages 10 to 17 were obese. That’s a 10 percent rise from 2003.

Doctors have fingered soda as one of the prime culprits.

“They’re the single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, in a telephone interview. “They’re very aggressively promoted, and the body doesn’t seem to handle calories very well when they’re in liquid.”

Brownell, who compares the fight against soda to that against tobacco, said that about 15 states and cities are currently mulling taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Because soda is cheap and widely available, children incorporate it into their diets early. If you make it harder for families to buy soda, doctors say, you can develop healthier eating habits at younger ages, when it matters most. Of children who are obese at ages 10 to 15, 80 percent remain obese when they turn 25, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Cutting down on childhood obesity means cutting down on obesity overall, and potentially saving hundreds of billions of dollars in medical costs.

The problem is especially widespread in low-income neighborhoods, where options for healthy eating are slim. In New York City, for example, twice as many blacks and Latinos reported drinking soda on a daily basis as whites, according to a report in the Journal of Urban Health. The report’s authors added that differences in soda consumption “mirror disparities in obesity and other chronic diseases.”

And parents are well aware of the problem. When researchers from the HSC Foundation, a non-profit health care system for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, asked a focus group of black and Latino parents how they could best encourage healthy eating habits, one of their responses was blunt: “Stop drinking soda.”

But the beverage industry has spent millions in an effort to kill proposals in Congress and in state and local legislatures to tax soda. And in that campaign, they have won some unlikely allies. Lawmakers who represent districts with large black and Latino populations have expressed reservations about the proposal, calling it “regressive” because it disproportionately affects the poor.

“Americans are smart. They know a money grab when they see it,” Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, said in March. “The public doesn’t buy that a tax is going to solve a problem as complex as obesity. Taxes like these are highly regressive, hurting the most those who can least afford it.”

Whether the White House report will spark a national revival is uncertain. Passing any new tax will likely be unpopular in the current political climate. And advocates of the idea, including Brownell, admit that a tax on soda might hit low-income populations harder. Brownell argued, though, that the soda companies themselves have targeted those communities in their advertising campaigns.

“For the industry to turn around and express concern for the poor seems pretty duplicitous to me,” Brownell said, adding that, while an excise on soda might be a regressive tax, “Obesity is a regressive disease.”