Debate over Sugar Tax Heats Up

A soda tax, junk food tax, or tax on other sugar-laden products would greatly reduce obesity and the risk of diabetes and heart disease, researchers say.

September 10, 2009

A sugar tax could force you to skimp on unhealthy drinks.

There's been an all-out assault on soda and other high-calorie, sugary drinks lately, with the American Heart Association releasing its first sugar recommendations and largely blaming soda and other sugary drinks for the obesity crisis. The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council is taking things a step further, calling for a sugar tax on these belt-busting drinks. Sugar tax recommendations from nutrition, obesity, and economics experts are also due out next week.


"A tax will reduce energy intake for all age groups, and will produce reductions in weight and the risk of diabetes. Every scholar in the world knows this, except a few funded by the sugar industry," says Barry Popkin, PhD, author of The World Is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race, professor of nutrition and economics at University of North Carolina, and director of the UNC Interdisciplinary Obesity Center.

THE DETAILS: On average, children and adults in this country drink about 175 calories worth of sugar-sweetened drinks a day. In fact, a study looking at middle-school–aged students over the course of two years found that the risk of becoming obese jumped 60 percent for every additional sugary drink they guzzled a day. Many other studies like these—ones that weren't funded by the beverage industry—have found a positive association between sugar-sweetened drinks (defined as ones containing added table sugar (sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, or fruit-juice concentrates, and obesity.

In the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report, experts not only suggest a tax on junk food and sugary drinks that lack nutrition, but also suggest zoning restrictions to keep fast-food joints out of school neighborhoods and regulations to ensure public water fountains are available. "The healthy choice must be the easy choice," says committee chair Eduardo J. Sanchez, MD, vice president and chief medical officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas. "Although leisure activities and food consumption are personal matters, local environments influence the choices people make. It's hard to eat fruit instead of chips or cookies when neighborhood stores carry little fresh produce."

WHAT IT MEANS: Chances are you're already paying a tax on your soft drinks, it's just so small you aren’t likely to notice. Thirty-three states tax soda, but the money doesn't necessarily go toward health programs, the way the tobacco tax does. Popkin theorizes that a nationwide tax of 10 to 20 percent of the cost of the sugary beverage could significantly dent obesity rates. He's also working with other countries like Mexico and England to create a sugar tax, and suspects the idea will become law in a half dozen other countries before it becomes mainstream in America. The idea of a sugar tax in the U.S. has been gaining steam. Earlier in the year, then City of New York Health Commissioner (now Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Thomas Frieden, MD, cowrote an article published in New England Journal of Health that argued educational campaigns alone would not be enough to wean people off of sugary drinks. Instead, he lobbied for a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, including soda.

Sugar tax or not, here are some things to consider.

• How about banishing subsidies on trash food? Medical costs associated with overweight and obesity near $150 billion a year, nearly 10 percent of U.S. healthcare expenditures. Half of these are paid through the government's Medicare and Medicaid programs. So why, then, does the government also subsidize junk food and sugary drink ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup? Maybe our cheap food really isn't so cheap. Maybe we're paying a huge price at the expense of our health as the food industry makes us fat.

• Get your neighborhood in shape. The Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report doesn't just recommend a sugar tax and junk-food tax on low-nutrition food, but also provides other suggestions to help local government form communities that will curb the skyrocketing childhood obesity rates. First steps include a community assessment to determine the number and location of grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, vending machines, walking and biking paths, and sidewalks.