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Guest Opinion: The soda-tax solution

BY KELLY BROWNELL AND DAVID LUDWIG | OCTOBER 08, 2009 7:20 AM

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The United States needs a health-care sweet spot — a way to raise revenue for needed programs now and a way 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 is arresting logic to the numbers. 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 added to the cost of sugary beverages. That amount would raise around $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. Once dominated by a few flagship beverages such as Coke and Pepsi, the marketplace 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 approximately 170 calories per day from these products, enough to have contributed substantially to the obesity epidemic and, independent of body weight, caused many cases of diabetes and heart disease. A recent study by the University of California-Los Angeles, and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy showed that 41 percent of California children drink soda every day and that adults who drink soda are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.

Economists estimate a 10 percent price increase would result in a 10 percent consumption reduction. Otherwise, why would the beverage industry use a strategy from the tobacco playbook and establish a front group — Americans Against Food Taxes — meant to evoke images of a vast consumer uprising?

Kelly D. Brownell is the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. David S. Ludwig is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. A version of this commentary originally appeared in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times.


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