Public Health Leaders Propose Soda Tax

"I would fear that without a concentrated commitment to educating the public about healthier options that the choices made may shift away from high caloric beverages -- yet land on equally unhealthy alternate choices," he said in an e-mail to ABC News.

Noting that "fast food, candy bars and countless other snack foods are likely equally culpable," Binks concluded that "Of course, any approach would require careful thought and planning -- but it seems that focusing discouraging single food classes is not the answer to such a multifaceted issue."

Is Drinking Coke Like Smoking?

Most doctors contacted by ABC News expressed approval of the idea of taxing sugary drinks.

"I strongly agree. It will clearly take public health measures with some teeth to tame the obesity crisis," said Dr. Ken Fujioka, director of nutrition and metabolic research at Scripps Health in San Diego.

"I think it's a fine idea," said Dr. Meir Stampfer, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, although he noted some of the authors are colleagues and friends. "The head of Coke likened this to the Soviet Union, but there is plenty of precedent for taxation like this."

The most common analogy drawn by advocates and opponents of the measure is to smoking, which has been taxed heavily.

Doctors affiliated with the study say the beverage industry has manipulated public opinion to oppose a tax.

"I think the main opposition comes from the sugar and soft drink industry, which has apparently engaged in a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to oppose this effort," said Ludwig.

The beverage industry has countered that such taxes undermine personal choice.

"A tax will cause real harm to hard-working American families at a time when they are already struggling to stay afloat during a recession," said Susan Neely, president and CEO for the American Beverage Association, in a statement issued Wednesday. "The American public views it as an over-reach when the government tries to tell them what to eat and drink."

Some researchers argued that tobacco is not an apt analogy.

"I think steep taxes on foods are problematic, because even 'bad' food is not tobacco," said Dr. David Katz, director of medical studies in public health at Yale University. "Tobacco can be avoided altogether -- and indeed, should be -- and thus, steep taxation is justifiable. Food cannot be avoided, so it comes down to choices -- and taxing people into choices is fraught with challenges and hazards."

While many states currently have taxes on sugary drinks, the authors of the paper say that such taxes are not high enough to effect change in dietary patterns.

Taxes on sugary beverages appear to be favored by a slight majority of Americans. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in August of this year, 53 percent of respondents favored an increased tax on soda and sugary drinks, while 44 percent were opposed to such a measure.

A Small Part Of A Larger Problem

Despite some support for the tax, other researchers questioned whether it would work at all.

"I don't see how anyone would go with attacking the beverage industry and taxing a single food, and I don't think the evidence is there to support taxing a soft drink," said Theresa Nicklas, an epidemiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. "Why are we targeting sweetened beverages? What about Twinkies, what about happy meals, what about chocolate candy?"

Instead, she said, efforts needed to be focused on education and self-responsibility.

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