A Novel Cure for Obesity: Tax Sugary Sodas

Experts suggest a tax on soft drinks could cut their consumption by 10 percent.

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Your views on solutions to the obesity problem will depend on how you see its causes. If you assume extra pounds are purely a matter of self-control and personal responsibility, you are likely to believe the answer is for people to simply muster up willpower and burn off more calories than they take in. (I heard from a lot of personal-responsibility advocates when I wrote about the health claims for VitaminWater.) If you believe that individuals fight an uphill battle given the "obesogenic" environment, you're more likely to be sympathetic to things like regulating how food companies market and label their products or using the tax code to change habits.

That latter proposal is the subject of a piece in the current New England Journal of Medicine by Kelly Brownell, professor and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, and Thomas Frieden, the health commissioner for the city of New York. The authors support the concept of a penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened soft drinks (including nondiet sodas and energy drinks but excluding fruit juice), saying it could cut their consumption by 10 percent. The proceeds, the article says, could be used to promote or even subsidize more healthful foods, like fruits and veggies, whose boosters lack the marketing resources of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Producing behavior change by education alone would be tough, they write, but "a sales tax on sugared drinks would generate considerable revenue, and as with the tax on tobacco, it could become a key tool in efforts to improve health."

[Read about the related debate about how much fruit juice kids should be drinking and get the lowdown on different kinds of caloric sweeteners, including agave.]

The soft drink industry says this sort of plan amounts to a regressive tax on low-income folks and balks at having its products singled out over others; indeed, while there is a lot of evidence supporting an association between kids' consumption of sugary drinks and obesity, there isn't a study proving direct causation. But whether or not it's fair to tax a Coke but not a Hershey bar, many nutritionists and other researchers point to those drinks as a major source of empty calories. Barry Popkin, director of the University of North Carolina's Interdisciplinary Obesity Center, has said that the average American consumes 400 calories a day from beverages. He says evidence suggests the body doesn't compensate for liquid calories—that is, by consuming fewer calories later—as it does with calories in solid form.

As a policy, this issue will be fought out at the state and local levels; New York and Maine are among the states that have considered it. For individuals looking to lose weight, though, it may highlight one simple strategy: Popkin suggests one of the easiest ways for adults to drop pounds is to cut all caloric beverages from their diets. (Read about his other thoughts on obesity.) That will save you both money and calories immediately.

Regardless of your choice of beverage, are you finding losing weight really tough? Here are 7 tips to boost your odds of success.