Solving obesity — a serious, but complex problem – is about balancing calories consumed from all sources with calories burned through exercise. According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity risk factors are fueled not by any single food or beverage, but rather a complex interplay of environmental, social, economic and behavioral factors acting on a background of genetic susceptibility.
A recent systematic review in Nutrition Research Reviews concludes there is little evidence from epidemiological studies that sugar-sweetened drinks are more likely than any other energy source to lead to obesity.
If we’re truly trying to reduce obesity, a tax on soda or other food product just won’t work. A tax will not make people healthier. Strong scientific and real world evidence verify this. In fact, West Virginia and Arkansas are the only two remaining states with added excise taxes on soft drinks, yet are also among the 10 highest rates of obesity in the nation.
People do not want government using tax laws to tell them what to eat or drink. Last year, Maine imposed a beverage tax to pay for the state healthcare program. In a November ballot initiative, Maine voters rejected the tax by an almost two-to-one margin. This year in New York, the governor proposed a major tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. New Yorkers revolted so strongly, the governor publicly scrapped the idea. A recent nationwide Rasmussen poll revealed that 70 percent have no appetite for taxing everyday products they enjoy, while only 18 percent support the idea of an obesity tax.
As a policy matter, David Brunori, a George Washington University public policy professor, states: “There are no sound policy arguments for supporting excise taxes on soda or other ‘junk’ food. These are nothing but thinly disguised attempts to raise revenue and to do so on the backs of low- and middle-income taxpayers.” And according to Ole Miss’ Barnard Distinguished Professor of Economics William Shughart II, “Singling out consumers of some products to finance a health-care plan the President says will benefit all Americans is fiscal discrimination at its most brazen.”
Our industry is meeting the public’s demand for nutrition information, more choices and less calories and portion sizes. Since 1998, calories in marketplace beverages have reduced 21 percent. It’s hard to single out regular soft drinks as a unique contributor to obesity when their sales declined 9.6 percent since 2000, while obesity rates continued to rise. Cumulatively, soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled water combined contribute only 5.5 percent of the calories in the average American diet, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The beverage industry is pro-actively fighting obesity. In 2006, we developed national School Beverage Guidelines with the American Heart Association and President Clinton’s Foundation as part of a broader effort to teach kids about the importance of a balanced diet and exercise. With our full support, Mississippi was the first state to fully implement them. Full-calorie sodas were removed from student vending at Mississippi’s public schools in 2007, and only lower-calorie, nutritious and smaller-portion beverages are allowed.
With Mississippi also leading the nation in lack of physical activity, we helped pass legislation in 2007 requiring comprehensive school nutrition guidelines and physical exercise. We have followed up with significant financial support for our state’s teachers to receive needed training.
Our voluntary commitment is ongoing and achieving results. A CDC official recently proclaimed Mississippi as the “healthiest school nutrition environments in the nation”. As policymakers seek ways to fund healthcare reform and solve obesity, we encourage them to seek policies based on science and common sense. We cannot tax our way to better health, but must continue working together to overcome this critical health problem.
Ron Aldridge is executive vice president and general counsel for the Beverage Association of Mississippi.