Opinion

High taxes on sodas could reduce obesity rates, experts say | Column

Imposing hefty taxes on sodas could curb consumption and make a significant difference in the fight against the current obesity crisis, according to health experts from Oxford University in England. The authors of a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) proposed a tax rate of 20 percent or more on sugary drinks, which are widely considered a major cause for weight gain both in Europe and North America.

“We’ve tried other measures to reduce obesity and they haven’t worked,” said Dr. Mike Rayner, director of the British Heart Foundation, a research group at Oxford University and lead author of the study report.

For the study, Dr. Rayner and his colleagues examined taxation policies on sodas in other countries as well, including the United States. They found that small to modest tax rates of one to eight percent were insufficient to make consumers change their buying habits.

But when some cafeterias on high school and college campuses introduced price hikes of 35 percent or more, consumption dropped almost immediately. Taxes on sweetened or carbonated drinks should be on par with tax rates on other unhealthy products like tobacco or alcohol because they are equally as threatening to public health, the study concluded.

The concept of reducing consumption through heavy taxation is not only being applied to sodas in some parts of Europe. Denmark has taxes for saturated fat, Norway taxes sugar and chocolate. High taxes on alcohol are common throughout Europe. A spokesperson for the National Obesity Forum (NOF), an advocacy group of health care professionals in the United Kingdom, said that taxation at high levels would be an incentive for soda manufacturers to reformulate their products.

In the U.S., “cold, bubbly, sweet soda, long the American Champagne, is becoming product non grata in more places these days,” according to the New York Times. “Schools are removing sugary soft drinks from vending machines and local governments are stepping up efforts to take them out of public facilities as the nation’s concerns about obesity and its costs grow.”

Some school districts have taken up initiatives to reduce or outright eliminate soda consumption among their students. One example is a small town named Faulkton in South Dakota where soda containers are no longer tolerated on school campuses, even if they were purchased outside or brought from home.

“This is really important because sugary drinks are the number one source of calories in our diets,” said health advocate Dr. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “We get more calories from sodas and sugary drinks than any other individual food – cake, cookies, pizza, anything.”

The American Beverage Association (ABA) rejects such characterization. “Singling out one set of products in such an overly simplistic manner only undermines efforts to combat this complex issue,” it said in a written statement. The ABA and other industry groups have long objected to imposing taxes on their products, claiming that such measures would damage the industry and lead to job losses.

On the other hand, companies like Coca Cola and PepsiCo have changed their packaging formats in recent years and offer now a wider variety of sizes from 7.5-ounce mini cans to 2-liter plastic bottles. They also raised prices, which turned into higher profits. Especially sales of mini cans are, as one representative put it, “on fire.”

It is hard to miss the irony that the same industries that have obsessively opposed taxes on their products to curb consumption are now cashing in on the message first conveyed by health advocates that less is more.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).

 

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