Harvard, USDA: Soda Tax Will Cut Obesity

It may take a year or two or five or twenty, but eventually some sort of levy will be placed on the liquid candy purveyed by the  beverage industry. In the past few weeks, two additional voices were heard in the argument for consumer (and legislator) mindshare on this issue.

A Harvard experiment, in a hospital cafeteria, tried various intervention models to get people to drink less sugary drinks. Posters with warnings had no effect, but raising prices by 35% caused a 26% decrease in sales.

And yesterday, the USDA’s Economic Research Service published a report [download PDF], with a bottom line conclusion that

a 20% increase in prices could cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day, equivalent to 3.8 pounds of body weight over a year for adults, and an average of 43 calories per day, or 4.5 pounds over a year, for children. Given these reductions in calorie consumption, results show an estimated decline in adult overweight prevalence (66.9 to 62.4 percent) and obesity prevalence (33.4 to 30.4 percent), as well as the child at-risk-for-overweight prevalence (32.3 to 27.0 percent) and the overweight prevalence (16.6 to 13.7 percent).

What you need to know:

The beverage industry has argued that a soda tax is too simplistic and ineffective. It has spent millions on TV commercials, lobbying efforts, and other PR activities to stop this tax which would mean hundred of millions of dollars of revenues evaporating overnight should a federal law be enacted.

They’ve played the “poor” card, citing that this tax will be most harmful to the lower socio-economic brackets, thus trying to gain sway as “for the people”. This is a dirty little trick, because it is a disproportionate percentage of poor people who suffer the most from obesity and other food related illnesses. And guess what, they drink the most soda pop too.

We wonder if the American Dietetic Association will weigh in on this matter, although it’s highly doubtful it can voice a strong opinion against an industry whose top players (Coca Cola Co., PepsiCo) are its corporate sponsors. After all, it’s not polite to bite the hand that feeds.

Going back to the Harvard study, it’s interesting to note that the “education” intervention had no effect on buyer choice. Perhaps this explains why Coca Cola spends millions in education programs, for example the American Academy of Family Physicians. The group received $600,000 last year “to educate consumers about the role of their products in a healthy lifestyle.”

What to do at the supermarket:

Taxes or not, the average US family of four spends over $500 a year on sugary soft drinks. Imagine if you could free yourself of that expenditure by switching to tap water. In most parts of the country, tap water is safer to drink and more heavily regulated than bottled water. By making this one switch, a family can lose weight, reduce plastic pollution, and save money to buy more fresh produce.

IS your family up to the challenge, or is it too taxing?

  • Mel

    I think the first thing we need to do is stop subsidizing corn (this would mean corn would no longer be a cheap feed for cattle and HFCS would also have its price raised). Until that is addressed, I don’t think we should consider taxing the consumers.

  • http://www.publichealthadvocacy.org Harold Goldstein

    This new report from the USDA’s respected research branch underscores the benefits of soda taxes in lowering rates of obesity and overweight among both adults and children.

    As you noted, the report, Taxing Caloric Sweetened Beverages: Potential Effects on Beverage Consumption, Calorie Intake, and Obesity, states that a 20 percent tax on soda could directly cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day for adults, or 3.8 pounds of body weight over a year, and an average of 43 calories per day for children, or 4.5 pounds over a year.

    The reductions in calories consumed translate to a 9 percent reduction in the prevalence of obesity in adults and a 6.7 percent decrease in the prevalence of overweight adults. For children, the decline of overweight rates is even more significant, 17.5 percent.

    That’s why our organization, California Center for Public Health Advocacy, and health experts and advocates throughout the state are calling on the legislature and governor to support the package of beverage bills before them, especially SB 1210, Senator Dean Florez’s bill to tax sugar-sweetened beverages.

  • Jason

    I think what Mel said should be priority number one if you want to fix the the system. This is the head of the snake. I wish they would simply subsidize in a way that promotes a diversity of organic crops (no GMO) from small, independent farmers. Either that or don’t subsidize at all. Crop subsidies needs to end.

    Adding a new tax just promotes the nanny-state. Once you go down that path (all in the name of health), where do you stop? Do you start taxing all oils too because it has more than twice the calories of sugar? Do you then move on to high-fat dairy products like butter and ice cream? Though I don’t doubt it’s effectiveness, there are better ways to achieve the same end.

  • http://www.healthhabits.ca Doug

    I don’t forsee any politicians being gutsy enough to slap a 20% tax on soda.

    A small tax maybe, but 20%…never.

    A small tax would allow them to pump up general tax revenue (no way they would allocate those tax dollars to other anti-obesity programmes) while appearing concerned about the health of their constituents.

    Unfortunately, previous studies have shown that small tax increases have little impact on junk food consumption.

    Politics trumps health promotion

  • http://Fooducate Tired of being taxed by the Gov’t

    Isn’t everyone tired of being taxed to death because of the few that can’t control themselves to live within their means? Why should we who can control ourselves have to pay just becuase of others that can’t or won’t. And why should the govt have to slap our hands every time a group thinks there needs to be regulation. I’m not even a soda drinker and this still infuriates me! Why can’t they be responsible about this and take matters into their own hands to watch their health! There’s certainly enough info out there in the webiversity for assisting people. The Govt mends to leave the people alone to make their own decisions-good or bad as long as they’re not harming others with their problems. Its time they start taking responsibiliity for themselves or get help!

  • Jason

    When will the taxes end? I am all for healthy eating, but like many things in life, people must want to change, not be forced to change. The soda tax is just an incrementalist policy that is more about addressing our politicians’ wasteful spending than curtailing a behavior. Educate people, starting with the youngest of children. How many people stopped smoking because of high cigarette taxes? Most I believe, never even started; not because of the cost, but because they were educated about it’s ill effects.

  • http://www.livingitupcornfree.com kc

    Repeal the subsidies or tax the purveyors of poison. If soft drinks are taxed, consumers that are addicted will just pay more for the soft drinks and have even less money left for produce and healthy real food. I really don’t understand how large corporations who hawk high fructose corn syrup (and other GM corn derivatives) do not suffer from “image problems”. How is it that it is perfectly socially acceptable to profit from ruining the health of our citizens? How is it that the average American doesn’t despise Kellog’s, Coca Cola and Kraft?

    I think it must be because the average consumer is confused by all this talk of vague “health claims” and constant misinformation in the form of “health studies” funded by the same corporations. It doesn’t help that there is so much conflicting information and confusion about calorie counting nonsense (junk food manufacturers love calorie counters!) and the notion that eating fat makes you fat (they love reducing fat and replacing it with super cheap HFCS and fga additives). Nobody seems to be focusing on the real problem, not even informative weblogs about nutrition and labeling issues. HFCS and all other GM corn and soy derivatives are not food. They have no business being in our nation’s food supply. Because they are made from “corn”, they are seen as less harmful than the hundreds of chemical compounds allowed in our foods by the FDA. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that this “corn” isn’t a food crop anymore. The genetically modified corn crops that are subsidized and used for making additives are as far from real corn crops as pumpkins are from gourds. (One is edible and the other is good for making maracas.) And that’s before these crops even get to the wet mills for processing, after they are broken down into the different components they have more in common with drain cleaner than with flour and salt or other food ingredients.

    It does no good to tax the “food” products that contain the HFCS and leave the corporate pushers alone. Any solution that allows these vultures to keep raking in the dough with a smile is really no solution at all.

  • Gerome

    Wow. I think everyone has a great point here. Taxation, though, is the fastest way to get a result (lower sugar consumption, reduce overweight/obeisty). Mel has it right though, sodas are cheaper than milk because we’ve underwritten the cost of the sweetener. There used to be a day when Mom went to the store and seeing that soda was more expensive than milk had a good reason to make the kiddos eat what they were supposed to. Now, soda is cheaper, so it’s harder to put up the battle with the kids. Eliminating the corn subsidy could go a long way to changing the price point (and consumption) of soft drinks, although I believe that state legislatures can more easily add a sin tax to beverages than the US govermnent tinker with the enormous and powerful forces behind corn.

    Jason and “Tired” have excellent points though… when oh when will we stop taxing everything? And where would that tax money go? Could it be returned to sports programs for school kids? (Yeah, a nightmare to administer, but state lotteries return something to cities and towns, so maybe it could be added in to those funds when there is a system in place.) (Sorry, sometimes Gerome has unrealistic dreams!)

  • Linda-rd

    The USDA correlating soda intake to obesity (as one of its factors) is almost reasonable. Undeniably, an average American consumes at least more than two cans of sodas a day. However, levying taxes is not necessarily the answer. Americans will just continue to consume soda for they already are used to it, and with soda prices rising, it would only leave them less money to spend for other needs. Opposition from soda companies might as well be expected.

  • Gerome

    Linda-rd :The USDA correlating soda intake to obesity Americans will just continue to consume soda for they already are used to it.

    Linda, not so. Indeed some people (most perhaps) may not change their habits, but there is plenty of evidence with both alcohol and tobacco (and gasoline for that matter) that as prices increase, consumption decreases.

    The most striking benefit of a tax may be in the fewer children who begin consuming sodas — and THAT would be doing something really positive. And again, apologies to the “no new tax” folks here who make very good arguments against another tax. I’m looking at this strictly from a “doable” and effective option point-of-view. – Gerry

  • http://www.growingraw.com GrowingRaw

    As for the question about whether my family would be up for cutting out soda (we call it soft drink in Australia) – luckily for us we never started. I think Gerome has hit at least one of the nails on the head. If kids only drink milk and water and maybe occasionally juice (at home at least) then that becomes an established habit for them.

    Maybe there needs to be an advertising campaign about how attractive rainwater is? There’s certainly some simple and beautiful language that could be used; clear, cool, crystal, refreshing etc And a glass of water looks appealing too. Water should be presented as the best drink rather than second or third choice when you can’t get something with more ‘flavour’.

  • http://Fooducate Tired of being taxed by the Gov’t

    Are we really going to let the gov’t tell us how many carorie we can have or how much we can weigh??? How about we start taking responsibility for ourselves instead of letting the gov’t do it for us. Peaple, get off your dead butts and own your life and quite letting the gov’t telling us how to live it! Can you imagine how much less gov’t bureaucracy there’d be? Or am I dreaming…

  • Gerome

    “Tired”, I do agree with you, really. But, here’s the problem with the “responsibility” arguement. First, people for the most part do not know much about energy balance, and the long-term effect of that extra soda or two per day. So, we’d need education to help change behavior. (People will not change if they don’t understand the benefit.) At the same time, we have lots and lots of companies selling soft drinks who are on the other side of the “responsibility” spectrum. So, you get what we have today – dueling forces. If we change the price, that has an immediate effect on behavior, with or without education.

    I do not want another tax. But, I’m already paying more than I should in health care premiums that support the medical bills of persons who are dealing with chronic disease related to obesity. We’re paying a “tax” already. I’d much prefer to let the prices float to real levels related to cost of production by removing corn subsidies, which, in addition to making cheap soda, lower the cost of beef, cheese, buns and ketchup. Cow eats cheap corn –> cheap ground beed and cheese. Corn syrup in both your bun and the ketchup.