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Could taxing sugary drinks help combat health problems?

By Kandy Childress • Nov 15, 2019 at 10:00 PM

An increasing number of cities and countries have begun taxing sugary beverages. But can raising the price of these drinks really make a dent in obesity, diabetes, and other ailments? This question, which was recently posed in the “Health and Disease” section of Knowable Magazine, is complex and has proven to land people on opposite sides of the proverbial fence.

At the basis of this whole issue is soda. I mean, who doesn’t love a cold soft drink now and again? After all, we are smack dab in the heart of Dr. Enuf and Mountain Dew country.

While our favorite soft drink is cloyingly sweet, it is, objectively speaking, nutritionally empty — and increasingly subject to taxation in more and more places across the globe.

More than 35 countries and seven cities in the U.S. — starting with Berkeley, Calif., in 2015 — now impose a tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, and several more places are considering it.

Public health researchers and organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, see these taxes as low-hanging fruit in the battle against obesity and the health problems such as diabetes that often come with it. In the U.S., nearly 40 percent of adults are obese, which adds $147 billion to the nation’s annual healthcare spending, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The problem is complex, but the widespread consumption of foods packed with added sugars — which add calories but no essential nutrients — plays a major role, and beverages account for nearly half the added sugar in the American diet.

“It’s really hard to shift these behaviors, and taxes are, if not the single most, one of the most impactful and important policies to move the needle on unhealthy eating habits,” says Christina Roberto, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Taxes have helped to reduce the public health impact of alcohol and tobacco, and many public health researchers say there’s good reason to think they can mitigate the harms of sugary beverages, too.

At the same time, there are also reasons that soda taxes might not have the impact on public health that advocates hope for. The current taxes may be too low to affect purchasing behavior. People could switch to other unhealthy foods. Or, in some cases, they could simply buy their soda in a neighboring city that doesn’t tax them.

Definitive answers won’t come fast: Chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes take years to develop, and so, too, will any health benefits resulting from a new tax. But an emerging body of research suggests that beverage taxes have already reduced consumption of sugary drinks in some communities — an encouraging and essential step.

Kandy Childress can be reached at kandy.childress@gmail.com.