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Proposed Beverage Tax Stirs Mixed Reactions
By Maura Keller

The obesity epidemic has been gripping the nation for several years. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise have led to a nation of overweight adults and children with myriad ailments. In an effort to curb the consumption of sugar-laden soft drinks and help finance the overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system, Congress is proposing a soda tax—and fueling debates throughout the nation.

According to Nancy Rogers, MS, RD, coordinator of worksite wellness and health promotion at the University of Arizona, “As K. D. Brownell, MD, et al explain in their New England Journal of Medicinearticle for October 15, 2009, the consumption of sugary drinks has increased in the past 30-plus years for both children and adults, and recent studies point to this increased consumption as one of the causes for the rising rates of obesity in this country.”

Advocates for the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, including sodas, sports drinks, and sugar-infused “fruit” drinks, believe the tax will help raise much-needed funds while reducing the prevalence of obesity.

“Adding a tax to the cost of these drinks would reduce consumption, raise awareness of the need to decrease low-nutrient-dense beverages, as well as raise funds for programs to educate people on how to maintain a healthy body weight,” Rogers says. “For healthcare professionals, this is good news.”

One objection to the proposed tax is that some people within the healthcare community (and beyond) believe the government should not tax food. “This raises the question about this tax as limiting people’s rights to choose what they eat,” Rogers says.

As she explains, the counterargument to this is the need for people to understand the consequences of their choices. “Just as the tax on tobacco has raised awareness of the cause-effect of using tobacco and increased incidence of cancer, there is a link between increased sugar consumption and elevated markers that increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes [higher triglycerides, lower high-density lipoproteins, and possibly increased insulin resistance], along with increased body weight,” she says. “The revenue raised by the tax would increase public awareness that frequent consumption of sugar-liquid calories can lead to increased risk for weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.”

“If the tax increases the cost significantly, it may affect the choices made by light users,” says Jessica Setnick, MS, RD, CSSP, author of The Eating Disorders Clinical Pocket Guide. “But heavy users will, of course, continue to consume their drink of choice, regardless of cost. If there is a large group of users who do attempt to limit their soda consumption due to cost, I believe we will begin to observe a distinction between those who find it easy to change their drinking habits and those who find it to be a difficult behavior to change.”

Setnick predicts that some heavy users will not be able to cut back on or quit their addiction to soft drinks, especially those who are ingesting significant amounts of caffeine. “They will experience withdrawal symptoms such as increased hunger and fatigue and may choose to resume their initial level of intake,” she says. “Others who try to quit will realize they are psychologically dependent on their drinks, either using them as a social lubricant, a way to take a break, to feel ‘successful’ as a dieter, and so on. I don’t predict a huge rash of people cutting back on soda due to cost but, in tough financial times, who knows.”

Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN, who has a private practice in New York City, says part of the problem with taxing sugary drinks—or any food for that matter—is that the move does not educate people on making healthy lifestyle changes. “So maybe someone won’t buy a soda because of the cost increase, but instead they’ll get extra-large fries or an ice cream sundae,” she says. “Without teaching behavior modification, we are actually doing a disservice to people.”

On the other hand, Rogers believes that if people are required to pay more for a sugary drink, it will cause them to reconsider the value of purchasing it. It may also raise awareness of the adverse consequences of consuming more calories than their body can effectively handle, leading to increased risk for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

In an effort to reduce Americans’ sugar intake, the American Heart Association released new recommendations on consumption: Most American women should consume no more than 100 kcal of added sugars per day and most men, no more than 150 kcal. That’s about 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day for women and 9 for men.

“The recent position statement from the American Heart Association is saying that a can of soda exceeds the daily recommended limit of sugar for a woman and almost the limit for a man,” Rogers says. “Would a higher cost on the soda and an awareness campaign on the importance of vegetables and fruit, low-fat dairy, and calcium have an impact on purchases at the cash register? I hope so. There are no guarantees that a higher cost for sugary drinks would equate to better food choices, but it’s a place to start.”

— Maura Keller is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.