Sweeten the health care pot: Tax sugar

  • Updated: October 9, 2009 - 9:51 AM

A nationwide surcharge on syrupy beverages would provide both revenues and health benefits.

The United States needs a health care sweet spot -- a way to raise revenue now and to lower health care costs in the future. Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages -- those with added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or so-called fruit juice concentrates -- would answer that need.

There are already minor surcharges on soda in many states -- fractions of a cent per ounce in most cases. That's not enough. What's needed is a penny per ounce of sugary beverages. That amount would raise about $150 billion nationally over the next 10 years. At the same time, the reduced consumption of soft drinks produced by a penny-per-ounce national tax would have direct health benefits, estimated to be at least $50 billion over the decade. This $200 billion could make an enormous difference in addressing the nation's mounting health care costs.

The average American drinks 50 gallons of sugared beverages annually. The marketplace, once dominated by a few flagship beverages such as Coke and Pepsi, has exploded into a wide array of fruit drinks, sweetened teas, energy drinks, sports drinks and other versions of sugar water. But two companies still reign: Together, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo control three-quarters of the world beverage market.

Sugared beverages are marketed with fierce precision, using sports stars and other celebrities and promising benefits ranging from increased energy to better memory. Product placements in television shows, such as Coca-Cola on "American Idol," expose vast numbers of children to hidden marketing. Portions are also an issue -- the 8-ounce bottle of the 1950s has morphed into a 20-ounce behemoth.

A regular 20-ounce soda contains 17 teaspoons of sugar and 250 calories.

The consequence? By the mid-1990s, per capita consumption of sugared beverages surpassed that of milk for children. Americans, including children, consume about 170 calories per day from these products, enough to have contributed substantially to the obesity epidemic and many cases of diabetes and heart disease.

The industry has launched an all-out assault on "soda-pop taxes." Beverage companies and their front groups claim that it is unfair to pick on soda when there are many factors contributing to obesity.

However, the scientific evidence linking sugared beverages with weight gain is stronger than for any other food category. Also, sugar in liquid form seems unique in its ability to slip past the body's calorie-detecting radar, perhaps because throughout evolution, the only beverage humans drank in large quantities beyond infancy was water. In other words, when you drink soda, you don't feel as full as if you were eating solid food, despite how many calories you're taking in.

The industry also claims that a beverage tax would hurt the poor. The same argument was used by tobacco companies to fight cigarette taxes. But as with tobacco, the poor are most hurt by diseases such as diabetes and obesity and stand to benefit the most from programs that could be supported by tax revenues.

What's more, the average family could save several thousand dollars a year by cutting out soda.

Kelly D. Brownell is director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. David S. Ludwig is associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. They wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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