Tonawanda News

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April 4, 2010

‘Obesity taxes’ stir debate in political, culinary circles

NORTH TONAWANDA — The “obesity tax” debate is a heavy issue, to be sure. On the one hand, Americans (and Western New Yorkers, in particular) are already heavily taxed, and the government should largely stay out of people’s lives.

But on the other hand, a good number of Americans have proven that they have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight (34 percent of U.S. adults and 17 percent of U.S. children are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). So, like beefed-up cigarette taxes have done with tobacco use, if the government can help some people improve their health and fatten its wallet at the same time (both with tax revenue and savings on health care costs), why not?

The pros

Should the state Legislature pass its proposed tax on sugary drinks, or any other governing body draw up any other legislation instituting a levy on food, recent research indicates that said body would be right to do so.

• A team led by Kiyah Duffey of the University of North Carolina analyzed the diets of more than 5,000 young adults from 1985 to 2006. That team, reported Reuters, compared data on food prices during that 20-year period and found that a 10 percent increase in food cost was linked to a 7 percent decrease in caloric intake from pop and a 12 percent drop in caloric intake from pizza.

Thusly, the team estimated that an 18 percent tax on these foods could cut daily intake by 56 calories per person, leading a a five-pound weight loss per person per year.

“Our findings suggest that national, state or local policies to alter the price of less healthful foods and beverages may be one possible mechanism for steering U.S. adults toward a more healthful diet,” Duffey wrote in a summary that ran in the Archives if Internal Medicine last month.

• Lab technicians at the University at Buffalo’s Division of Behavioral Medicine ran an experiment with 42 mothers of all weights, who were split into two groups by family income.

Let loose in a lab that was set up to resemble a grocery store (with photo cards showing more healthy and less healthy food items simulating the groceries), the mothers were given $22.50 to go on a two-hour grocery trip to buy food for the family (imaging that there was no food in the house).

The experiment was run five times, with technicians altering the prices of items each time. During two runs, healthier foods had their prices lowered, and two runs saw the prices increase on less healthy foods. Lowering the prices did little to encourage the purchase of healthy food, the researchers found, but raising the prices swayed the mothers to avoid less healthy foods.

“Taxing high-calorie-for-nutrient foods had the dual benefit of reducing purchases of these foods while increasing purchases of low-calorie-for-nutrient foods with lower energy density,” says the study’s first author, Leonard H. Epstein, head of the Division of Behavioral Medicine. “In our experiment, a tax that increased the price of foods by 12.5 percent reduced the total calories purchased by 6.5 percent. This resulted in a 12.8 percent reduction in fat calories and a 6.2 percent reduction in calories from carbohydrates.

“From a public-policy standpoint, this strategy had the additional benefit of generating significant tax revenue. If policymakers aim to reduce consumption of HCFN foods to control rising rates of obesity, then taxing these foods may be more effective than subsidizing LCFN foods.”

The cons

Yet even as science substantiates the apparent need for taxes on junk food, public opinion sways in the opposite direction. Gov. David Paterson’s long-proposed penny-per-ounce pop tax appeared to be a dead issue as the Legislature tried to finalize its fiscal budget for the coming year last week.

A Rasmussen Reports study, meanwhile, found that 56 percent of Americans oppose any sort of soft drink tax (33 percent of respondents were in favor of a tax). The study cited a distrust of government, which is believed to be more interested in raising money than taking care of citizens, as well as the desire to not be told what to do.

“This poll reinforces that people don’t want one more penny in taxes, especially on their groceries,” said Susan K. Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, a lobbying group that has fought beverage tax proposals in several states.  “In this troubled economy, it’s the wrong time to raise taxes on hard-working families, particularly when the revenue would simply pay for more government.”

What a tax could do

Kenny Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, told Reuters that cent-per-ounce tax could cut the consumption of sugary drinks from 50 gallons per person per year to 38.5 gallons. That would have the potential to take a big bite out of the nation’s health care costs (the CDC estimated than $147 billion, 10 percent of the federal government’s total medical spending, goes to obesity-related treatment).

“We tax tobacco, and we tax alcohol. We decided as a society that those things are causing enough problems that a tax was justified,” Brownell said. “Are we at that point with sugared beverages?”

According to Neely, definitely not.

“Americans are smart. They know a money grab when they see it,” she said. “The public doesn’t buy that a tax is going to solve a problem as complex as obesity. Taxes like these are highly regressive, hurting the most those who can least afford it. It’s time for lawmakers to bury this ill-conceived tax once and for all.”

Obesity taxes could help encourage better habits — even if through financial coercion — according to Victoria Pearson, deputy director of the Niagara County Health Department. In a March interview with Greater Niagara Newspapers, she said that letting problems arise, and then paying to treat them, might not be the most efficient way to combat obesity.

“Health care is very expensive and ... people are too dependent on a health system that’s focused on acute care (medication, surgery, responding to problems),” Pearson told reporter Joyce Miles. “What about prevention? Diet? Exercise? Behavior is 30 to 40 percent” of a person’s health status.

Wherever the debate goes in the future, obesity taxes are inevitable at some point, according to Philip Gorham, a beverage analyst at Morningstar.

“It’s worth the fight (to the beverage industry) to keep consumers on the high-margin products for as much time as they can,” said Gorham, who told Reuters that a pop tax will probably return to the national agenda “sooner rather than later” since “the need to close those budget gaps is immediate.”

Contact Paul Lane at 693-1000, ext. 116.

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