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Is sugar the new nicotine?

As we mentioned earlier, Judith Phillips, a research analyst with the Stennis Institute of Government, was the keynote at today’s monthly luncheon meeting of the Stennis Capitol Press Corps.

Phillips released the findings of a report she just completed that looks at some of the facts and figures associated with obesity – more specifically, how much sugar-sweetened drinks contribute to the condition.

Mississippi is at or near the top of almost every list that ranks the most obese states in the U.S.

Figures from 2008, the latest that are available from the Centers for Disease Control, tell us that 33.4 percent of Mississippians are considered obese relative to their Body Mass Index, which measures height and weight to determine if a person is obese, overweight, at his ideal weight or even underweight. Mississippi is first on that list, followed in second place by Alabama, at 32.2 percent.

The CDC also puts Mississippi at the top of deaths per 100,000 people that are obesity related. In 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available, 270.9 Mississippians died of heart disease, which is the most common obesity-related disease that causes death. Alabama, at 253.3 deaths per capita, is second on that list, too.

In 2009, according to Phillips, Mississippi spent $700 million in Medicaid money to treat obesity-related conditions. Phillips said that number is expected to rise above $1 billion the next decade, as states are forced to pick up bigger portions of their Medicaid tabs.

“Action is needed (to combat obesity and pay for the tratment of related illnesses and diseases) but that decision is left up to the decision-makers,” Phillips said, adding that her report wasn’t meant to forge policy, but to provide information to those who make policy decisions.

A bill that would have added an excise tax on sugar-sweetened drinks like sodas has already died this legislative session.

But the issue is far from over.

Rep. John Mayo, who authored the bill this session, has said repeatedly the past few months that he will continue to introduce similar legislation. Phillips’ report says that a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks would produce an average of $145 million per year in revenue the next four years; a tax-per-ounce of 1.5 cents would generate an average of $187 million per year over that same period. A two-cent-per-ounce tax would produce an average of $208 million over the next four years.

Ron Aldridge, who is the Mississippi director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, also serves as the executive vice president of the Beverage Association of Mississippi, which staunchly opposes any excise tax on its sugar-sweetened products.

Aldridge said the BAM led the charge in 2007 as Mississippi became the first state to remove full-calorie sugar-sweetened beverages from public schools.

“This thing is not about whether or not our beverages cause obesity. There’s been no scientific study that says that. There’s been no scientific study that proves there’s a direct link to that, either. What they do say is that it’s about calories in and calories burned.

We believe we need to attack obesity at every front. The public schools have done an excellent job of that. Taxes aren’t going to make us healthier. That’s the reality of it.”

This sounds a lot like the rhetoric that surrounded the cigarette tax in its first years of debate at the Capitol. Legislation to levy an excise tax on cigarettes died the first three or four times lawmakers attempted to move it forward. While it’s not certain that a soda tax will pass, like the cigarette tax eventually did, what is certain is that it’s an issue that will be a part of the next handful of legislative sessions.

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