In the U.S., the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened juices, etc.) has steadily risen over the past 30 years, strongly correlated with obesity rates. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are now the most significant contributor to one’s daily caloric intake, and have a recognized negative impact on health. Regular soft drink consumption has been directly linked with increased body weight, as well as increased risk for diabetes and metabolic syndrome, even among those who consumed just one soft drink per day.

First, some statistics to set the stage:

  • Adults consume an average of 265-293 calories’ worth of SSBs on a daily basis, while adolescents consume an average of 104-269 calories from SSBs per day. [1]
  • A whopping 96% of beverage marketing and advertising is targeted directly at children and adolescents. [2]
  • “For each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the likelihood of a child’s becoming obese increases by 60%.” [2]
Increased consumption of SSBs has prompted 34 states to impose sales taxes or place restrictions on their sale. Unfortunately, the current taxes are modest, averaging 5.2%, and sales restrictions are generally limited to schools; as a result, these policies have not had the intended effect of reduced SSB consumption among the general population. What are some other options that states can pursue to reduce SSB consumption and therefore obesity?
       Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the most popular options, suggested by food policy experts like Kelly Brownell (director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity) and Michael Pollan.  Current sales taxes have shown a limited impact on consumption habits, largely because consumers have already made the decision to purchase SSBs when the tax is applied at the register. Instead, an excise tax imposed on SSB manufacturers would result in increased prices for consumers, which may deter them from purchasing them altogether. Analysts from the Rudd Center and the Center for Science in the Public Interest have estimated that the impact of a 1 cent per ounce excise tax would result in $14.9 billion in revenue raised* – which could used to fund public health and obesity prevention programs [1, 3]. This revenue could also be used to recoup some of the costs of obesity to our health care system, which amounted to $147 billion dollars in 2008.
       There are many barriers to SSB taxation, including lack of public support, the interests of the beverage industry, and logistical issues in determining appropriate ways of taxing beverages. But, the potential benefits – improved health among the population and increased revenue for states – build a strong argument for taxation as a step towards solving the nation’s obesity epidemic. Of course, taxation isn’t a “cure” for obesity and would need to be combined with other efforts in order to make a significant impact.  What do you think? Is taxation a step in the right direction?

*this amount was calculated assuming some reduction in consumption

[1] Pomeranz JL. “Advanced policy options to regulate sugar-sweetened beverages to support public health.” Journal of Public Health Policy, 25 August 2011. [epub ahead of print]

[2] Brownell KD, Frieden TR. Ounces of Prevention – The Public Policy Case for Taxes on Sugared Beverages. New England Journal of Medicine. 2009; 360(18):1805-1808.

[3]  Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Soft Drink Taxes: A Policy Brief. Fall 2009. Available from: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/reports/RuddReportSoftDrinkTaxFall2009.pdf

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