Thursday, April 09, 2009

Should we tax sugar sweetened beverages?

In this week's edition of the New England Journal of Medicine is an editorial written by public health crusaders Drs. Kelly Brownell and Thomas Frieden exploring the idea of taxing sugar sweetened beverages.

Unlike putting calories on menus, this would no longer simply be about passing on more information it would be about charging more money.

Basically there are two ways to approach this: Incentive taxation whereby a nominal tax would be applied with the proceeds then going to public health/obesity related initiatives or disincentive taxation whereby you put enough of a tax on the drinks so as to discourage their consumption (or of course a combination of the two).

This wouldn't be an entirely new plan. You may be surprised to know that 40 American States already have small taxes on sugared beverages and snack food and that in Canada there are many different tiers of food taxation.

The argument for taxation is simple. Sugar-sweetened beverages are strongly linked to the obesity epidemic and some argue that they are in fact the single biggest driver of societal weight. They're marketed extensively to children and in the mid 1990s their intake in children surpassed that of milk. Shockingly calories consumed from beverages now account for 10-15% of all the calories consumed by children and adolescents and for every glass consumed per day the likelihood of a child becoming obese increases by 60%. That's one hell of a big gulp.

The authors report that with regards to disincentive taxation, for every 10% increase in price, consumption decreases by 7.8% and estimate that a penny per ounce excise tax would reduce consumption by 13% or two servings per person per week. In turn the tax would generate literally billions of dollars ($1.2 billion in New York State alone) which if used to promote health and better dietary options could have further impact on health and obesity.

Opponents state that food taxes are regressive and unlike tobacco, we need food to live therefore taxation would be unfair, especially when singling out a single food.

Well I've got news for them - we don't in fact need sugar sweetened beverages to live.

As I keep hammering home, to put a dent in rising rates of obesity requires action on a societal level, not an individual one. We need to change the toxic environment itself and taxing one of the main drivers of the epidemic is one way to do that.

This is a war. Sometimes war calls for tough decisions and personally I think this would be a good one.