A healthy tax plan

Our view: Tax­ing sug­ary drinks a po­ten­tially ef­fec­tive weapon in war against obe­sity

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

Amer­i­cans are con­sum­ing far too many sug­ary drinks that con­trib­ute to ris­ing obe­sity and di­a­betes rates. The lat­est weapon in the public health arse­nal to com­bat the prob­lem — tax­ing them — de­serves more se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion in Mary­land.

Ear­lier this month, vot­ers in five cities ap­proved spe­cial taxes on sug­ary drinks — a cat­e­gory that in­cludes not just the usual car­bon­ated sus­pects such as Coke and Pepsi but also cer­tain sports bev­er­ages and bot­tled teas. That brings to at least seven the num­ber of U.S. mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with some form of per-ounce tax on sweet­ened drinks.

It’s not just a mat­ter of rev­enue for cash-strapped lo­cal gov­ern­ments but an ef­fort to fun­da­men­tally change con­sumer be­hav­ior. As econ­o­mists of­ten point out, the more a prod­uct is taxed, the less of it is con­sumed. And the tax on sug­ary bev­er­ages is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of a “sin tax,” much like taxes ap­plied to to­bacco, al­co­hol and gam­bling.

And that’s not just smoke and mir­rors. To­bacco taxes are a case study in how to dis­cour­age young peo­ple from ac­quir­ing a po­ten­tially deadly habit. And there’s no bet­ter way to judge that suc­cess than to look at to­bacco tax rev­enue on a na­tional scale — de­spite sig­nif­i­cant boosts in tax rates, to­bacco-re­lated tax col­lec­tions fell from $17.3 bil­lion in 2011 to $16.9 bil­lion in 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Nel­son A. Rock­e­feller In­sti­tute of Govern­ment.

Over the past decade, the num­ber of cig­a­rettes sold each year in this coun­try has been in a con­sis­tent de­cline. High taxes may not be the only rea­son for that trend — public ed­u­ca­tion cam­paigns (fu­eled by to­bacco tax rev­enue) have played a role as well.

High-sugar drinks de­serve a sim­i­lar fate. The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion lists sug­ary drinks as a lead­ing source of sugar in the Amer­i­can diet, and they are as­so­ci­ated with a higher preva­lence of obe­sity, type 2 di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, kid­ney dis­ease, cav­i­ties, gout and a type of arthri­tis. One re­cent study sug­gests teens in the United King­dom con­sume the equiv­a­lent of a bath­tub full of sugar from sug­ary drinks each year.

Health ad­vo­cates in Howard County have been par­tic­u­larly vig­i­lant on this topic, and four years ago the county passed re­stric­tions on sales of sug­ary drinks and cer­tain high-calo­rie snack foods on county prop­erty. That ban was sub­se­quently re­voked by County Ex­ec­u­tive Al­lan Kit­tle­man, but the mes­sage stuck — a new study found sales of soda at 15 county gro­cery stores have dropped by nearly one-fifth, which is far greater than the 1 per­cent or 2 per­cent de­cline in soda sales re­ported na­tion­wide.

Still, public ed­u­ca­tion only gets you so far. To­bacco was iden­ti­fied as a public health threat more than a half-cen­tury ago, but it took two gen­er­a­tions’ worth of public health cam­paigns — and a to­bacco tax — to truly turn the tide.

One can, of course, make a dis­tinc­tion be­tween to­bacco prod­ucts and sug­ary drinks, as the for­mer is un­health­ful in any quantity and the lat­ter can be con­sumed safely by most peo­ple in small quan­ti­ties. The prob­lem is that Amer­i­cans aren’t con­sum­ing sug­ary drinks in small quan­ti­ties, and the re­sult is that two out of three adults are con­sid­ered obese and the na­tion has an obe­sity epi­demic that is cost­ing $190 bil­lion a year in health care costs.

Even with a grow­ing in­ter­est in a drink tax, the fight is go­ing to be tough. U.S. bev­er­age com­pa­nies spend about $3.2 bil­lion each year to mar­ket their drinks and, un­like to­bacco prod­ucts, they can place ads for them wher­ever they like, from youth sports venues to kids car­toons, a Har­vard study notes. The re­sult? More kids drink sug­ary drinks and in larger quantity — with teens now get­ting more calo­ries from them than they do from any other source, in­clud­ing pizza.

Oak­land, San Fran­cisco and Al­bany in Cal­i­for­nia and Boul­der, Colo., join Philadel­phia and Berke­ley, Calif., in ap­ply­ing a sug­ary drink tax. The only ques­tion is whether the rel­a­tively small taxes — at most, they may in­crease prices by 10 per­cent — will be enough to dis­cour­age con­sump­tion. Big soda com­pa­nies are ob­vi­ously wor­ried and have been look­ing to re­duce calo­rie counts on some prod­ucts. So much the bet­ter. Re­duc­ing sug­ary drink con­sump­tion alone won’t cure the na­tion’s obe­sity cri­sis, but it’s cer­tainly a step in the right di­rec­tion.

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