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The Obesity Epidemic: Are Soda Taxes the Solution?

By Maddie CrippsPublished October 21, 2014

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Soda taxes are highly controversial and widely opposed by the soft drink industry and citizens alike, but they may be our best bet in the fight against obesity.
By Maddie Cripps, 10/21/2014

This coming November, voters in Berkeley, California — a city known for enacting groundbreaking policies — will determine the fate of the proposed 1-cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks. The controversy surrounding soda taxes has received much attention following former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to ban soft drinks 16 ounces or larger. Outraged New Yorkers insisted the tax encroached on their freedom of choice, the beverage industry — protecting itself against profit loss — allocated millions of dollars towards anti-tax lobbyists, and ultimately Bloomberg's plan failed. Unfortunately, these self-centered and myopic attitudes have deemphasized the severity of the issue that led to discussion of these taxes in the first place — the extremely high and rapidly increasing obesity rate in the United States, and the urgent need to fight this growth.  

Sugary drinks are unhealthy — it's no secret. Yet, despite this common knowledge, adults and children are consuming more soda and in larger servings than ever before. Beverage companies in the U.S. spend upwards of $3 billion on marketing each year, half of which is targeted towards youth consumers. The soda industry recognizes that increased exposure boosts beverage consumption and profits and neglects the fact that these sugary beverages, which account for 15% of children's caloric intake, have been deemed the biggest contributor to the obesity epidemic. In the U.S., obesity is now regarded as the leading cause of death, with 2 in 3 adults and 1 in 3 children considered overweight or obese. Moreover, childhood obesity has tripled in the past four decades. Researchers have linked soda consumption to a number of obesity-related health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and gout. For instance, regular consumption of sugary drinks makes a person 26% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, compared with a much smaller chance with no soda consumption. All in all, the U.S. annually spends $190 billion treating obesity-related conditions. Needless to say, obesity prevention is an urgent and time sensitive public health issue that must be addressed.

Luckily, there is a promising method of tackling this issue, which is so prevalent in our nation — soda taxes. Taxing sugary beverages, researchers estimate, would reduce consumption by about 10% and in turn, reduce government healthcare spending on conditions resulting from obesity. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, reduced soda consumption can lead to improved weight control and ultimately decrease the occurrence of obesity and resulting health conditions. Soda taxes also decrease overall healthcare spending. Studies show that a 3-cent per 12-ounce tax would raise $24 billion over the course of 4 years, which could ultimately go towards Medicaid funding. Furthermore, a soda tax could incentivize consumers to make healthy eating choices. Over the past 30 years, the cost of fresh produce has increased by 50%, while soda and fattening foods have become increasingly inexpensive. A soda tax would "strike back" against this price gap and encourage people to eat more healthily. As studies have shown, soda taxes directly result in numerous and substantial benefits — so why have they not yet been implemented?

When considering proposing a soda tax, we ought to remember the nature of the profit-hungry, multibillion-dollar soft drink industry. In an effort to avoid being seen as the root of a public health epidemic, soda companies have shelled out millions of dollars to various schools and institutions, creating obesity prevention programs and conducting research. The industry has also developed ads meant to scare less well-educated and lower income families into the false belief that the soda tax's "regressive" nature will ultimately harm them. With enormous sums of money, the beverage industry has successfully gained anti-tax support and blocked implementation, despite lacking evidence opposing the taxes.

It's natural that an industry so powerful and popular in our society would put up a (costly) fight when threatened by prospective legislation — and it is evident that these taxes indeed pose a threat. The beverage industry has spent $117 million opposing taxes nationally since 2009, implying that a soda tax would greatly decrease the consumption of soft drinks. Nonetheless, I hope that come November, voters in Berkeley think not of the soda industry's profit loss and citizen's so-called "infringed" freedom of choice, but instead recognize the big picture. Soda taxes represent a monumental opportunity to combat the most prominent cause of death in the U.S. Passing up on such an opportunity due to personal preference would be both selfish and shortsighted. Plain and simple — if we want to diminish the obesity rate and associated costs, soda taxes are our best bet in achieving these goals and improving public health.