Though former President Clinton has focused on reducing childhood obesity since leaving the White House, he told ABC News Wednesday he does not favor the tax on soda that a nutrition group has publicly supported to pay for health care reform.
"I'm doing everything I can on this obesity thing," Clinton told ABC News. "I think the better thing to do is to give incentives right across the board for prevention and wellness."
"That's what I would do," he said.
Clinton weighed in on the debate over taxing soda one day after the Center for Science in the Public Interest urged a key congressional panel to adopt a tax on nondiet soft drinks. The group believes a soda tax along with a tax on alcoholic beverages would both promote health and generate revenues to help fund expanded health care coverage.
"Because soft drinks have been a major contributor to obesity in recent decades, and because obesity is a major cause of diabetes, hypertension, strokes, heart attacks and cancer, Congress should impose a new excise tax on nondiet soft drinks, including both carbonated and noncarbonated beverages," said Dr. Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in written testimony submitted to the Senate Finance Committee.
Though Clinton does not favor taxing soda, his Alliance for a Healthier Generation has worked with beverage companies to reduce the caloric content of drinks sold in school vending machines. Full-calorie sodas were removed from school vending machines under a deal reached in 2006, replaced with lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverage options.
Speaking Wednesday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Clinton characterized the beverage industry's decision to sell smaller, low-calorie drinks in schools as not only good policy but also good business.
"If we had a 9-year-old child in Harlem diagnosed with type 2 diabetes three years ago, we're at risk of having the first-generation of Americans with a shorter lifespan than their parents," said Clinton. "If you really want a healthy customer base, it's OK if you sell smaller drinks in schools, and healthier ones, and have healthier adult customers 10 years down the road."
Instead of new taxes to pay for health care reform, Clinton said the focus should remain on containing health care costs.
"We have to change the delivery system so the cost curve goes down," said Clinton. "If we don't change the cost curve, it doesn't matter what money we raise. It doesn't matter anything. We're going to be back in the soup in five years."
He then invoked a statistic that he said he learned from his daughter, Chelsea, who is currently earning a master's degree in public health from Columbia University.
"Eighty percent of the projected increase in Medicare costs are from medical inflation and not from adding population," said Clinton.
Clinton's misgivings about a soda tax put him closer to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, than to Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who competed with Clinton for their party's presidential nomination in 1992.
Harkin has said that lawmakers ought to consider a special tax on soda and "junk" food. Grassley recently dismissed the idea.