THE BLOG

Soda Taxes: Leveling the Playing Field

02/24/2014 04:47 pm 16:47:11 | Updated Apr 26, 2014

I have always preferred Pepsi over Coke. For some reason, I had a strong emotional attachment to Pepsi as a child. Accordingly, using one of my favorite athletes and adolescent crushes undoubtedly helped turn me into a loyal Pepsi consumer. As a child of the '90s, I neither saw nor heard media messages about the issues of drinking too much of these products. Only pro-consumption cues were given from both the advertisers and in my personal life, such as being rewarded with a soda after my baseball game or the cheap, allowance-friendly price of a bottle of Pepsi at my local convenience store. Unfortunately, the health of children is constantly being impacted by these social norms and built environments. Research has shown that with every sweetened beverage consumed, a child's odds of becoming obese increases by 60 percent.

Over time, opinions have started to shift, and people are beginning to decrease their consumption of soda. Unfortunately, energy drinks are now taking soda's place in children's diets. Awareness is being raised about the growing consensus of the negative side effects from overconsumption of these products. Not to mention, the less talked about impact these beverages have on our children's dental health. The beverage industry complains that it is unfair to single them out, a statement to which I agree with to a certain point. As David Katz, the poet laureate of health promotion explained, focusing on one ingredient will not be the magic bullet to fix our nation's health. Likewise, we do need to start somewhere and reducing consumption from the plethora of nutrient poor choices under the sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) category is a great first step.

As Yoni Freedhoff brilliantly rationalized, we need to start leveling the playing field in our food environment through regulation. As San Francisco and Berkeley move closer to being the first cities to pass taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (with 67 percent of the population of California supporting a tax), we need to help emphasize the benefits of such regulation and dispel myths. A recent macroeconomic simulation demonstrated that the myth of the SSB tax harming the economy by causing job loss was not true. In regards to a California based SSB tax, the research demonstrated that the government revenue generated could be around $940.4 million, and a .03 percent net change in jobs, potentially creating an increase of 6,654 jobs for the state.

The myth of the tax impacting "personal choice" is moot also, since choice is never autonomous and is always being impacted by the built environment, social values, or advertising. Those factors are currently telling the American public to drink more SSB than is healthy. The marketing budget for just Pepsi and Coke is around $4.3 billion. You can buy soda in any environment you enter, with price incentives for larger sizes. In addition, the industry hid the negative scientific research of their products and tried to reduce the consumption of beneficial drinks, such as tap water. Companies that benefit from SSB sales, rightfully so, only care about their wealth, not our health. These are businesses, not leaders for public health.

Similarly to the previously listed support for a tax, another simulation in health affairs estimated that a national SSB tax could, over the next decade, help prevent over 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes, 26,000 deaths, and save the United States $17 billion in obesity related health care costs. This tax was also estimated to generate $13 billion in revenue, which could be utilized to support nutrition public health interventions.

Initiatives such as the Pouring on the Pounds campaign could be utilized nationally on both traditional and social media outlets. Innovative media campaigns, which make produce as exciting and sexy as soda, could become reality. We could grow the Double Bucks program at both farmers markets and retail stores to overcome the cost of produce for SNAP recipients. Along those same lines, we could use the funds to increase produce voucher dollar allotments for the Special Supplemental Women, Infants, and Children feeding program. Funds could support Medicaid and Medicare participants to have access to obesity prevention services, such as more frequent counseling sessions with a dietitian or cooking classes. Familiar cartoon characters or athletes could be sponsored to promote nutrient dense foods instead of their current junk food promotions. Also, school nutrition cooking improvements and programs like FoodCorps could be expanded to make sure that the millions of lunches served each day promote wellness.

Just as cities and governments are held responsible for economic success and failures, the health of their inhabitants also needs to be considered as a marker of their achievement. SSB taxes will help to improve the health of communities and families, as well as level our food environment playing field. In the end, we can keep playing the game as is, which has gotten us into this health dilemma, or we can begin to start controlling the field and help make our food environment equal.