SODA TAX SOUNDS SWEET, BUT IT WOULDN’T REALLY SOLVE PROBLEM
Arecent Kansas City Star editorial that favored a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages began with, “We’re all too fat and Kansas is broke.” You can’t argue with that. But as a registered dietitian who has been following both nutrition in Kansas and the debate over similar taxes in other states, I can definitely say a tax won’t help obesity, and closing a budget gap by taxing food is especially distasteful. Let’s deal first with what I know for sure. Despite what pro-tax advocates declare as fact, there is no real evidence that the kind of tax being proposed here would make the slightest difference in body mass index, a measure of obesity. And blaming soda for obesity is like blaming the TV remote control — it may contribute to weight gain if you spend all your free time on the couch, but it’s not the cause. There is no single cause for obesity, and the way to address weight control is eating balanced, healthy meals, moderation and exercise. This is exactly what first lady Michelle Obama and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said in January when they announced plans to help Americans lead healthier lives through “better nutrition, regular physical exercise and improving communities to support healthy choices.” In a place like Kansas City, famous for great food, supporting healthy choices means teaching, not taxing. After all, even at $6 a pack, plenty of people still smoke. Most people know this is really about closing the state budget gap. States all over the country are facing tight budgets, but family budgets are tight, too, and I’m just not sure we should solve the deficit at the grocery checkout counter. A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages does not just mean soda, it also means juice, flavored waters, tea, energy drinks and sports drinks. In the past, small store owners who could not keep track of which products were taxed and which ones weren’t just taxed everything to be safe. Where does it stop? How much is enough? If we tax soda, why not tax cookies and cakes? How far do we want to go? From the look of things this is just the beginning. Many of the same people pushing for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages today already are talking about a tax on pizza and in New York have introduced legislation that levies fines on restaurants for cooking with salt. I’m not sure how to solve the budget shortfall, but it is clear we have a big problem with obesity in Kansas, and the solution will emerge from all of us working together. State government must work with the medical and health communities — including dietitians — Kansas businesses and community organizations to help change the way people think about food and exercise. One good model for working together may be the Alliance for a Healthier Generation — a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association — which has been working with the American Beverage Association since 2004 to remove full-calorie soft drinks from schools nationwide and replace them with lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverages. Last month, former President Clinton and the alliance announced an 88 percent decrease in total calories contained in all beverages shipped to schools and a 95 percent reduction in shipments of fullcalorie soft drinks to schools. This is just the beginning, but it demonstrates the power of partnership, and no tax can ever do that. Diane Greenleaf is a registered and licensed dietitian, a member of the Kansas Governor’s Council on Fitness and the Kansas Dietetic Association, and a consultant to the Coca-Cola Co. She lives in Wichita.