Every year, the average soda consumption per person in the United States is almost 50 gallons. At the same time we are seeing increasing rates of obesity and diabetes. In fact, one in three people in the United States are overweight or obese, including children, according to the American Heart Association. People of color and lower income earners struggle with these conditions at higher rates than the rest of the population. The obesity epidemic, as it has come to be known, is running rampant and policymakers are struggling to find ways to fight it.
The obesity epidemic is not only detrimental to people’s quality of life, it is also tremendously expensive. The nation spends roughly $190 billion per year treating obesity-related health problems. First Lady Michelle Obama has highlighted this issue, through her “Let’s Move” campaign to promote healthy initiatives across the nation, including support for nutrition education and increasing access to healthy foods. While we need to employ a variety of different tactics to begin to turn the tide, a particularly controversial method is being proposed in San Francisco: the soda tax.
Sodas are very high in sugar, readily available in most stores, and relatively inexpensive to purchase. They’re the sweet treat most people drink without thinking. One key difference between sodas and other “junk” foods is satiation. The brain does not recognize that it is “full” or has received a large amount of calories when they’re delivered in liquid form. Put plainly, when you drink one 12oz can of Coca Cola you ingest 140 calories and almost 10 teaspoons of sugar. However, because it is in liquid form your body doesn’t recognize the calories in the same way as it does when you’re eating solid food. Accordingly, you do not compensate by eating less of something else.
The Harvard School of Public Health recently put together a fact sheet detailing several key findings linking soda consumption to obesity. They reported that the proportion of children getting calories from sugar-sweetened beverages has risen from 79% in 1989 to 91% in 2008, the same time period during which we saw increasing rates of obesity. Sugary drinks are now the top source for calories among teenagers in the United States. Many studies have found linkages between soda consumption and weight gain, the most alarming being that each additional 12-ounce can of soda consumed daily by a child increases his risk of being overweight by 60%.
The City of San Francisco has proposed a two-cent per ounce tax on sodas to be levied on distributors. If passed, it could raise the price of soda by $0.40 for a 20-ounce bottle. The tax revenue will be used to fund health, nutrition, and physical education programs in the city. Increasing the cost of a product with high health risks is not a new idea. We are all familiar with the tobacco tax, which was used to discourage non-smokers from picking up the habit by making it very expensive to start. People in the Unites States now smoke at half the rate they once did. While that drastic decline is not completely attributable to the tax, a significant increase in price does diminish consumption. A 2010 study by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government showed that a significant increase in the price of soda would result in a steep drop in soda purchases. The study also tested the effectiveness of an education campaign about the health risks of drinking soda and found that it was not successful in changing behaviors.
A tax on sugar-sweetened soda is one important policy option to help address the trend of increasing obesity. Unfortunately, this type of taxation is regressive: It falls disproportionally on people of a lower socioeconomic status who spend a bigger percentage of their income on consumption goods. In general, people seeking equitable solutions to social problems would not recommend such a tax. However, in the case of soda, there is an overall net benefit to society if we all consume less of it. Reducing soda consumption will mean lower rates of obesity, less suffering from the effects of obesity-related illnesses, and a decrease in health care spending on treatment for such illnesses. A tax is not an outright ban; consumers will still have the choice to drink a soda if they so choose. This is one step in the direction of making foods that are bad for us reflect their true cost to society. Trotter, J.K. March 2013. “Americans Drink 44 Gallons of Soda Per Year.” The Wire: What Matters Now. Accessed April 10, 2014 http://www.thewire.com/national/2013/03/americans-drink-44-gallons-soda-year/62977/  American Heart Association. 2013. “Statistical Fact Sheet: Overweight and Obesity.” Accessed April 10, 2014. https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@sop/@smd/documents/downloadable/ucm_319588.pdf  Let’s Move. “About Let’s Move.” Accessed April 10, 2014, http://www.letsmove.gov/learn-facts/epidemic-childhood-obesity.  The Harvard School For Public Health. “Sugary Drinks and Obesity Fact Sheet”. The Nutrition Source. Accessed April 10, 2014, http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sugary-drinks-fact-sheet/#references.  Center for Disease Control. 2014. Smoking and Tobacco Use: Trends in Cigarette Smoking. Accessed May 2014 http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/tables/trends/cig_smoking/.  Lanzarotta, Molly. 2010. “Substantial Increase in the Price of Soda is a Successful Strategy to Decrease Purchases of Sugary Soft Drinks.” Harvard Kennedy School Of Government. Accessed April 10, 2014 http://www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/news/press-releases/pr-sugary-soda-jun10.
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