Added Sugars

Source: National Coalition on Health Care


WASHINGTON – New Yorkers will be sipping – not gulping – their sugary soft drinks this weekend when Mayor Michael Bloomberg starts enforcing a citywide ban on purchasing sugary beverages of more than 16 ounces. And Bloomberg isn’t the only one targeting sugar-sweetened beverages.

Just south of Baltimore, Howard County, Maryland recently moved to ban the sale of non-diet sodas in government-owned vending machines. States as far-flung as Hawaii and Nebraska are considering soda taxes.

America spends anywhere from $147 billion to $190 billion per year on the treatment of chronic diseases stemming from poor nutrition.  It’s clear then that shifting American dietary habits should be a prerogative of policymakers, according to Larry McNeely, who heads policy communications and advocacy at the National Coalition on Health Care.

“We know that such a large portion of our health care costs come from these chronic diseases,” McNeely said. “If we’re really going to move the needle on cost, we have to confront the causes of disease and obesity, and one of those is sugar sweetened beverages.”

According to a study in Public Health Nutrition, these drinks alone bear responsibility for one-fifth of weight gain among Americans between 1977 and 2007. In regulating consumption of sugary drinks by young children and teenagers, Mom and Dad may not be saying “no” enough, said Chuck Marr at a recent Capitol Hill forum on sugary drink health policy.

“Not every parent is a nutritionist,” said Marr, who specializes in federal tax policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The ‘village’ is probably not on the side of parents on this issue.”

The National Coalition on Health Care, sponsor of the Capitol Hill meeting, is focused on a federal soft drink sin tax applied across the board – not banning specific beverages.

“Our interest in the tax comes from the reality that if you’re going to move the behavior of millions of folks, this is perhaps the most powerful tool to do that,” McNeely said. “If the tax were done right, say a penny per fluid ounce, there are some scholars that say it could really not only raise revenue but also change behavior.”

The Bloomberg ban has attracted national attention; it will prohibit the sale of large sugary sodas by restaurants, movie theaters and street vendors. (Seven-Eleven’s notorious Big Gulps are safe, as these convenience stores are licensed by the state.) In other parts of the country, attempts to tax sugary beverages have emerged with less fanfare. In November 2012, two towns in California rejected a sugary soda tax by huge margins at the polls. They would have been the first cities to have such measures on the books.

Despite support from some health policy analysts and politicians, critics question the potential effectiveness of taxes or bans directed against full-calorie beverages.

Legislative efforts to ban and tax sugary drinks are ineffective and ill-equipped to combat weight-related health issues, according to Chris Gindlesperger, the senior director of public affairs for the American Beverage Association.

“Ultimately, we (the beverage association) believe that to address obesity, we have to have meaningful solutions that bring together all sectors of our society,” Gindlesperger said. “We need comprehensive solutions for complex problems.”

Beyond the desired improvement in health outcomes, some say a tax or ban on full-calorie beverages puts government in a paternalistic role, instructing citizens what they should and shouldn’t do.

“We believe in empowering consumers to make choices that are right for them,” Gindlesperger said, referencing a recent project of the American Beverage Association to clearly label calorie counts and nutrition facts on all of its members’ products.

Through policies meant to discourage sugary soda purchases, legislators overstep their bounds in explicitly telling consumers what to do, according to Katie Furtick, a Reason Foundation policy analyst.

“The role of government is not to determine what its citizens can and cannot consume, and [these policies] actually harm consumers by distorting market prices and artificially increasing the price through a tax,” Furtick said.

Someone  who has seen the effects of diet-related chronic illnesses, however, might disagree with the argument that taxes on sugary drinks and  aren’t the government’s place, McNeely said.

“I think for anybody who deals with the health care universe or knows someone who faces heart disease or diabetes, it’s a little bit harder to laugh this off as some kind of nanny state solution,” McNeely said.

Instead, McNeely said, a tax on sugary drinks is predicated on personal accountability. The more sugar-sweetened beverages a person consumes, the more he or she would pay as a part of the tax. The revenues from the tax could then be used to address rising health care costs.

“If someone wants to drink Coke every day and likely contribute to greater health care costs down the road, that’s fine, as long as he or she is paying enough into the system and isn’t just taking from it,” McNeely said. “These folks are contributing to larger health care costs. It’s a matter of responsibility.”

Evidence illustrates that excessive sugar in a person’s diet  causes weight gain, butdoesn’t support the argument that sugary beverage consumption is the predominant culprit for the spike in obesity, Gindlesperger said.

As full-calorie soda sales have fallen, the overweight population has exploded: Between 1999 and 2010, non-diet soda sales dropped12.5 percent, but obesity in children and adolescents rose 69 percent from 1994, according to an American Beverage Association factsheet.

Soda taxes and bans “are discriminatory and regressive, and they won’t work as a way to improve people’s health,” the beverage association spokesman said. “There’s no evidence that suggests a ban or tax on any single product will decrease obesity or make people healthier. … [Advocates for sugary drink taxes and bans] mislead people to think that soft drinks should somehow be assigned 100 percent of the blame for obesity.”