This week the Wall Street Journal and James Knickman, President and CEO of the New York State Health Foundation, weighed in on a potential soda tax. WSJ cited research which suggested that while a 40% levy on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages would raise $2.5 billion annually, it would “only” result in an average weight loss of 1.3 pounds per person, per year (most of that weight being lost in middle-income households.) The article goes on to paraphrase one of the primary authors of the study:
If the goal is obesity prevention, taxing only sugary drinks may not be the most effective way to go. . . Targeting the sugary and fat-laden foods with the lowest per-calorie cost would actually suggest going after candy rather than soda, he says. A soda tax might have its biggest effect on obesity not by reducing consumption, but by raising money to put towards prevention or other anti-obesity efforts.
Knickman takes a similar tack, suggesting that “such a tax might only make sense if it is in fact part of a larger campaign of initiatives to make a meaningful dent in the problem.” Here’s his preliminary sketch of what a more comprehensive, less incremental anti-obesity campaign might look like in New York:
- get rid of every soda machine in schools;
- seriously revamp school lunch menus;
- adopt standard requirements for recess, physical education, and other physical activities in school (and go the extra mile with similar standards for child-care programs);
- get insurers to start paying for meaningful diabetes prevention programs that focus on helping people improve eating and exercise (the YMCA is piloting such a project in New York State and elsewhere and UnitedHealth Group is committed to begin reimbursing for it);
- establish joint-use agreements that would allow community members to use gymnasiums and other school-based recreational facilities outside of school hours, to provide additional opportunities for students and community members to be more physically active;
- start a campaign to have every large employer have an on-site wellness program that encourages physical activity and good eating habits;
- extend menu-labeling laws to all eating establishments across the State; and
- grow the smallish initiatives of New York City to get fruits and vegetables available in our low-income neighborhoods.
Facilitating weight loss (marginal as it may be) in an incredibly overweight and unhealthy country while at the same time raising billions in revenue that could be spent on the treatment and prevention of obesity sounds pretty good to me. But WSJ and Knickman are right to suggest that a soda tax cannot and should not go it alone. The end goal is not to raise some cash by making sugary drinks more expensive, it is to noticeably reduce the incidence of obesity and mitigate its far-reaching effects. If a tax on soda gets us part of the way there, great. If a tax on heavily-processed foods gets us further, even better.
When it comes to the American obesity epidemic there’s no need (and maybe not much time) to think small.
(Photo Credit: Photoshop Player 2009 via Flickr)