EDITOR's NOTE:Dr. Michelle Cardel, PhD, RD is the Gainesville Lunch Out Blog's resident expert on all important food information that is healthy, smart, and good for your body, mind, stomach and waistline. Dr. MC shares smart food advice with GLOBers on a regular basis and looks forward to answering, discussing any food questions you might have.
Tax promotes health, or increases revenue?
"Bloomberg's soda ban fizzles, New Yorkers win," proclaimed a Daily News headline in 2013.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's push to establish a soda tax was headline news in the Big Apple and beyond. Linking the sugary drinks to obesity, the mayor pitched his soda tax as a public-health issue. Ultimately defeated, the soda tax had its champions butwas very divisive.
Now Philadelphia's Mayor Jim Kenney - image below - has pushed through a 1.5 cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks. Kenney takes a different tack from Bloomberg, arguing for Philly's soda tax based on its revenue potential.
A tax to encourage health, or to increase revenue?
Either way, a soda tax rivets attention to sugary drinks, and to obesity and health questions associated with them.
As an obesity scientist and registered dietitian, I see firsthand the physical, emotional, and social effects of obesity, so I understand the desire to single out a culprit for the obesity epidemic. Currently, 38 per cent of adults and 17 per cent of youth in the United States are classified as obese.
Though sugary drinks are essentially liquid candy and have little to no nutritional value, they are not the single contributor to obesity. Obesity is a very complex disease affected by a variety of factors, including your genes, your environment, the amount of stress in your life, and your lifestyle.
If we want to make a "sin tax" for commonly consumed foods that are high in calories and low on nutrients, why not also tax fast food, pizza, French fries, and desserts? It is unclear why soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages have been targeted more than other equally energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods.
Let's be clear--I am not a fan of soda or any other sugar-sweetened beverages, and I rarely drink them myself. I also encourage my patients who are trying to lose weight or improve their health to reduce or avoid sugary drinks.
My concern is that we do not have the available data to show that a tax on sugary beverages increases health or decreases obesity.
For example, Mexico has the highest per capita consumption of soda in the world and implemented a 1 peso per liter tax on sugary drinks in 2014.
A peer-reviewed study on the effects of the tax reported that, in 2014, after the tax was implemented, purchases of sugary beverages decreased 6 percent from the average of the previous two years, and sales in the final month of 2014 were 12 percent lower than in the previous two Decembers. Thus, sales of sugary beverages did decrease after the tax.
However, a preliminary study of 8,000 Mexican households found there was no corresponding effect on weight.
Surprisingly, the data also suggest that the tax was least likely to affect consumption of sugary beverages in those households with lower income and in those where the "head of the house" had obesity. This essentially means that those who were more likely to "benefit" from the tax were the least likely to change their behavior as a result of the tax. It also means more of the revenue generated by the tax came from low-income households least able to afford it.
Ultimately, I think we should take a hard look at the scientific evidence such as the effects of Mexico's taxation policies before any city jumps on a well-intentioned but unproven bandwagon.
There's no need to sugarcoat the obvious:
If the goal is to make Americans healthier and to reduce obesity, let's not waste resources,or energy,to implement a potentially ineffective tax.
Instead, let's direct money to research and education that helps scientists and medical professionals identify evidence-based and effective ways to improve the health of Americans.
EDITOR's NOTE: Michelle Cardel, PhD, RD, is an obesity and nutrition scientist and registered dietitian at the University of Floridaâ€™s Department of Health Outcomes and Policy in the College of Medicine. She has no conflict of interest to disclose and has never received financial support from the American Beverage Association or any sugar-sweetened beverage company. She was asked to write this article and it was printed on behalf of the Orlando Sentinel. Other articles on the same topic included an opinion piece from Susan Neely, the CEO and President of the American Beverage Association, as well as a mediated summary piece from Orlando Sentinel writer, Michael Joe Murphy.