Public Health Leaders Propose Soda Tax

Proposed soft drink tax the authors hope will curb the obesity epidemic.

Several of the nation's leading health experts are calling for a tax on soda as a means of curbing America's obesity-epidemic.

Their paper, appearing in the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, calls for a tax on "sugar-sweetened" drinks in order to reduce the consumption of the drinks and lower health costs as well as fund government-run health programs.

"A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is really a double-win," said Dr. David Ludwig, a co-author of the paper and director of the Optimal Weight for Life program at Children's Hospital, Boston.

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"We can raise much-needed dollars while likely reducing obesity prevalence, which is a major driver of health care costs, the paper states. "Ultimately the government needs to raise more money to cover the deficit, and in terms of ways of raising that revenue, a tax on sugar sweetened beverages is really a no-brainer."

Such a tax has been proposed in the past. In a perspectives article in the New England Journal this past April, Kelly Brownell of Yale University, one of the current paper's authors, along with then-New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden, co-authored an article advocating a tax on "sugared beverages."

Frieden has since become head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokesman for the CDC noted that taxing sweetened beverages is not part of the current administration's position. However, in at a conference on obesity in July of this year, Frieden responded to a question on the issue saying:

"I think anything that increases the availability and decreases the relative price of healthy foods and anything that decreases the availability and increases the price of unhealthy foods is likely to be effective. The challenge, I think, is a political one of getting that approved as well as there are very important administrative and operational issues with implementation of such a tax."

Frieden's successor in New York, Dr. Thomas Farley, is one of the authors of the current paper.

Ludwig noted that the authors focused exclusively on beverages that contained sugar, and not diet substitutes for sugar.

"The evidence is much stronger for sugar sweetened beverages than diet beverages," he said. "It's not to say that the question of diet beverages isn't interesting and important, and there is much research going on."

But while many public health advocates support a sugared-beverage tax, the idea has drawn concern and outright opposition.

"If your goal is to reduce obesity, this won't work, because most people won't stop drinking soda," said Richard Williams, managing director of the regulatory studies program and government accountability project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. "You can't change people's taste buds."

While acknowledging the cost difference, he said he didn't think it was likely that people would turn away from soda as quickly as hoped.

"I don't think it's necessarily true that the poor haven't heard that water's cheaper than soda," said Williams.

Martin Binks, director of behavioral health and research director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, expressed skepticism that a taxation and health education program would achieve its goals.

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