May 16, 2012 -- Calories, number of hours spent exercising, number of pounds to lose, those who are overweight now have a new number to worry about: a "fat" tax.
Adding a high tax on unhealthy food and drinks may help slow the rising rates of obesity, according to a new study published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal. Previous studies suggest that the sharp tax increase on cigarettes in 2009 has contributed to the dramatic decrease in the number of smokers in the U.S. And it's hoped a "fat" tax would work the same way.
A tax of at least 20 percent placed on sugar-sweetened drinks could drop obesity rates by 3.5 percent and prevent 2,700 heart-related deaths each year, according to the study.
Nearly 34 percent of Americans are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The growing obesity rate has led to high cholesterol, and an increase in chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer. The goal of the tax is to curb sales of unhealthy food and decrease overconsumption, which may help to prevent disease.
The study also called for subsidizing the cost of healthy foods and vegetables to make them more affordable to greater numbers of people.
A growing number of European countries, including Denmark and France, have already imposed a tax on unhealthy food and drinks.
But not all foods that are high in fat are considered unhealthy, which may challenge the notion of imposing a blanket tax, some food policy experts said. It's important to first distinguish what food and drink should be labeled "unhealthy" before imposing a tax, they said.
"Some high fat food like nuts are related to reduced weight gain," said Dr. Walt Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard University's School of Public Health.
Salmon and avocados, also high in unsaturated so-called good fat, are also considered healthy foods. Unsaturated fat eaten in moderation can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.
"A focus on sugar and refined starch is better, but as a first step I favor a focus just on sugar-sweetened beverages as the evidence is strongest for this," said Willett.
One out of five children drink three or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day, accounting for an extra meal, according to the HBO documentary series, "Weight of the Nation," which is airing this week.
Dr. Jana Klauer, a New York private practice nutrition physician, likened soda to a "gateway drug" to obesity.
"Sugary soda is nothing more than liquid calories which stimulate appetite," said Klauer.
Unhealthy foods and drinks are only a small contributor to many factors that lead to obesity, according to Martin Binks, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Binks Behavioral Health.
"Taxation may shift food choices away from those foods, but it provides no guarantee that the consumer will not simply shift to other unhealthy options and or continue to consume unhealthy quantities of all foods while also getting inadequate physical activity," said Binks.
Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine agreed that food is not the only culprit for obesity. Instead, the focus should lie on restoring physical activity programs and offering incentives and tax breaks for those who implement healthy behaviors – what he called, "actions that reward good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior.
"To solve the obesity crisis, people don't need more legislation, they need more motivation," he said.
Only steep taxes added to a large amount of unhealthy food and beverages will keep consumers from switching to other unhealthy foods, according to Oliver Mytton, academic clinical fellow at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study.
"Singling out one set of products in such an overly simplistic manner only undermines efforts to combat this complex issue," the American Beverage Association said in a written statement, citing a study review by researchers at George Mason University that only showed a slight decrease in body mass index when a 20 percent tax was imposed on sugar beverages.
According to the study, some food industry groups say higher taxes could damage the industry and lead to job losses.
But some experts say that cost to jobs is not as risky as the economic cost if Americans remain obese. Obesity costs American businesses $70 billion in lost productivity, another statistic presented in the HBO documentary series.
"The cost in tax payer dollars is enormous," said Klauer. "A soda tax could be used to offset the medical costs."