Support for Soda Tax Fizzles at the American Medical Association

VIDEO: Yale University Rudd Centers Kelly Brownell: A move in the right
WATCH Stamping Out Soda

In the controversial debate over imposing a soda and sugary beverage tax to fight obesity, the American Medical Association has declined to enter the fray -- at least for now.

At this week's annual meeting of the AMA's policy-making House of Delegates, about 300 delegates debated and ultimately opposed giving AMA support to a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, saying it needed more information on the topic, says AMA Past President Dr. Cecil Wilson.

"They said they were not sure that taxing these products would be appropriate and wanted to know more about the different types of sweeteners and their impact on public health. There will be a report back next year on the topic," he says.

Though the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, has argued in favor of a penny-per-ounce tax on sugared drinks to both decrease consumption and raise sorely needed funds for health care, efforts to impose such a tax have met with staunch opposition by the beverage industry, and some doctors and academics.

"The taxes aren't going to be very effective because people's demand for sugary beverages is resistant to small price changes. When it comes down to it, people will probably just pay the few cents more and buy it anyway ... which only disproportionately hurts those with less economic means," says Richard Williams of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who has studied the estimated impact of a beverage tax.

The strongest force opposing a soda tax has been, naturally, the American Beverage Association, the trade organization representing the interests of beverage companies in the U.S.

"Taxes don't make people healthier, making smart dietary decisions does," says ABA spokesman Chris Gindlesperger. "Our industry makes products with calories in them. We know that. But we believe that seeking to solve a complex health issue like obesity with discriminatory tax on beverages is not based in sound science," he says.

The ABA has lobbied against such a tax since it was first introduced in the 1990s. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the ABA currently devotes more than $18 million to fund lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

Doctors Weigh in on the Soda Tax

Many doctors point to sugary beverages as a particularly salient culprit in the mounting rate of obesity in the U.S., especially among children and adolescents.

The American Heart Association has pointed to sugary drinks as the No.1 contributor of added sugars to the American diet, and CDC research has shown that one in four adolescents drinks at least a can of soda a day.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, cites the spike in childhood stroke as a particularly egregious public health concern that may benefit from decreased soda consumption:

"Soda is contributing excess calories to the American diet, and excess calories are contributing to obesity, and obesity is contributing to a higher rate of strokes in kids. I can't think of anything more dreadful," says Katz, who supports the tax but recognizes that instituting it might not be feasible.

There are two big road blocks to passing such a tax, Katz says: Americans are largely anti-tax right now given the political and fiscal climate and the research behind the efficacy of a soda tax is lukewarm.

Soda Tax: One Strategy of Many?

"The AMA is right to say there's no definitive science showing that lowering soda consumption will lower obesity [levels]," says Katz. "But I support the tax, because I think we should be doing everything we can to improve dietary patterns and promote health."

Requiring data that shows that a soda tax would single-handedly lower obesity is like putting out one sandbag and gathering data on whether it will hold back a flood, he says.

"If you do it that way, when all is said and done you don't build the levy, and it's the collective levy that works. This tax could be one of many strategies to fight off obesity," Katz says.

The AMA reference committee in charge of evaluating support for a soda tax will further investigate research on sugary beverages and obesity, and present their findings at next summer's AMA meeting.

Public health matters that did made the cut for AMA support this week included improving the nutritive value of prison food, discouraging advertising companies from using Photoshop to make models preternaturally thin and investigating the health impact of full body airport scanners.