In a bid to ramp up the public health battle against obesity, a group of nutrition and economics experts are pushing for a tax of 1 cent on every of ounce of sodas and other sweetened beverages.
Proposals for a hefty soda tax though have repeatedly fallen flat. The idea was even floated as a way to help pay for health care reform, but government officials on Wednesday said that's not likely to happen.
The experts' plan was released by the influential New England Journal of Medicine, in a health policy article by Arkansas' surgeon general, New York City's health commissioner and five national experts on health and economics.
A soda tax would generate tax revenue while discouraging people from consuming extra calories, the authors contend. They cited a series of studies that showed higher rates of obesity and diabetes among women who drank more sugar-sweetened beverages. They argue that a steeper soda tax would borrow the same strategy that helped drive down cigarette smoking while bolstering government revenues.
But a golden opportunity for enacting a national soda tax apparently slipped away Wednesday, when the Senate Finance Committee released its health reform proposal without a previously considered soda tax provision.
The House of Representatives' health reform bill also is without a soda tax. And a White House spokesman on Wednesday said President Barack Obama is not going to ask for Congress to put a soda tax in.
The politics of health reform are too delicate right now to provoke an attack from the sugar and beverage industries, said Kenneth Thorpe, a health policy researcher at Emory University.
"They're at such a fragile place, introducing anything new and big like that into the mold is not likely to happen," said Thorpe, who served as a federal health policy official under President Bill Clinton.
Proposal would double average state tax
Taxes on soda aren't new — 33 states charge sales tax on soft drinks. But generally they are fairly small, with the average soda tax rate being 5.2 percent. On a 12-ounce can of soda that costs $1, that translates to about 5 cents.
The latest proposal in Thursday's issue of the medical journal calls for a 1-cent-per-ounce sales tax, an amount more than double the average state tax. It would increase the levy on that $1 soda can to 12 cents.
A national tax of that amount would generate nearly $15 billion in its first year, said proposal author Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
The money could be used for child nutrition and obesity prevention programs, the authors suggested. The tax also would lead to a yearly 2-pound weight loss for soda drinkers, on average, they estimated. For people who drink who drink a lot of soda, it could be more, Brownell said.
His co-authors included Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson; New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley; University of North Carolina obesity expert Barry Popkin; University of Illinois economist Frank Chaloupka; and Harvard nutrition and obesity experts Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. David Ludwig.
But the beverage industry will no doubt fight a legislative proposal like that, Brownell and others said. PepsiCo threatened to move its corporate headquarters out of New York before that state dropped efforts to implement an 18-percent sales tax on sweetened beverages, they noted.
The American Beverage Association disputed that the soda tax would reduce obesity rates.
"We agree that obesity is a serious public health issue, but the solution put forth by these researchers simply won't work," the trade group said in a statement. "Reducing obesity will only be addressed through comprehensive solutions."
Thompson, the Arkansas surgeon general, said one reason soda taxes fail is that consumers don't view sugared beverages as an important source of their weight problems.
"That's a new concept" that may take a while to gain wide acceptance, he said.
Brownell said it is more likely that soda taxes would be adopted first by states, than by the federal government.
"That's what happened with tobacco. The states were on it long before there was federal action," he said.