A sweet tax

Tuesday April 12, 2011

In "The Wealth of Nations," Adam Smith wrote "Sugar, rum, and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life ... and are which therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation."

That was 235 years ago and though we have agreed to tax tobacco products and alcohol, we’re still arguing over imposing a tax on sugar, and the foods and drinks that include sugar and other sweeteners, such as corn syrup.

Though 40 states already have small taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks, a bill in the Vermont House of Representatives to do the same has languished in the Ways and Means Committee.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell was the first to propose the tax and, as you can expect, he was attacked by special interest groups.

The "Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax," which describes itself as a group of concerned citizens, businesses and community organizations, was one of the loudest critics.

The coalition opposes new taxes on many grocery items, according to its website.

We got news for the coalition, sugar-sweetened drinks aren’t groceries ... that is if you agree with the definition found in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: A grocery is a commodity sold by a grocer, "who is a dealer in staple foodstuffs, meats, produce, and dairy products ..."

Can those behind "Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax" explain to us how sugary drinks fall into that category?

And the Beverage Association of Vermont said there is no evidence to suggest that such a tax would effectively combat obesity.

But a study conducted by the USDA concluded a soda tax would cut obesity.

And according to Kelly D. Brownell and Thomas R. Friedan, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, for every 10 percent increase in the price of those beverages, consumption of the drinks dropped by 7.8 percent.

According to Brownell and Friedan, sugar-sweetened beverages "... may be the single largest driver of the obesity epidemic."

It’s largely because of their ubiquity.

Those drinks include, but are not limited to, soda, Kool Aid, Snapple, Gatorade, Vitamin Water, SoBe, soy and almond milk, Red Bull, Rockstar, hot cocoa mix and Tang.

Here in Vermont, just as in the rest of the nation, the number of obese individuals has more than doubled in the past 20 years. More alarmingly, it has nearly tripled among our youth.

Sugary beverages now account for 10 to 15 percent of the calories consumed by children and adolescents, surpassing consumption of milk.

"For each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the likelihood of a child’s becoming obese increases by 60 percent," wrote Brownell and Friedan.

Studies that do not support the link between sugary beverages and poor health, wrote Brownell and Friedan "... tend to be conducted by authors supported by the beverage industry."

While a small tax can generate significant tax revenues that can be used to encourage healthier lifestyles, wrote Brownell and Friedan, on a short-term basis, it doesn’t really help solve the problem of obesity in America.

"Only heftier taxes will reduce consumption," they wrote.

Eric Finkelstein, a health economist and associate professor of health services at Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, goes even further.

He encourages a more broad-based tax to include "cookies, candy and other products with lots of added sugar and fats (which) are equally unhealthy, consumed in large quantities and very inexpensive partly due to generous farm subsidies ..."

Critics of a sugar tax often argue that the government shouldn’t be trying to change individual behavior via public policy.

But, as Brownell and Friedan noted, Medicare and Medicaid pay out nearly $40 billion a year to treat people who are overweight or obese.

Whose pocket does that come out of?

One way or another, whether it’s through a sugar tax or through Medicare and Medicaid, we are all paying for the unhealthy "foods" in our nation’s diet.

It seems to make sense to calmly and rationally discuss any and all ways to reduce obesity and our health care costs.

The debate shouldn’t be dominated by industries that have the most to lose. Rather, we should be listening to health care professionals whose only agenda is seeing that we all lose weight and get healthier.


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