Senate continues to consider soda tax

9:58 AM, Jun 15, 2009   |    comments
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Would you like some taxes with that drink?

The Senate Finance Committee, looking for ways to pay for health reforms, has been considering the possibility of attaching a federal excise tax for the first time to soda and other drinks sweetened with sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Increasing the taxes on alcoholic beverages has also been on the congressional table.

It seems unlikely that these ideas will make it into the health-care legislation that Congress will tackle this year. In an interview with CNBC, committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said they're "on life support." Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, described them as "nuisance taxes."

However, some leading health experts applaud the ideas, saying these kinds of taxes could cut consumption of high-calorie soda and help obese Americans lose weight; and they argue that more taxes on alcohol could reduce drinking and pay for some of the costs of alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver.

"There is robust scientific evidence that sugary-beverage consumption increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University and co-author of a recent commentary on this topic in the New England Journal of Medicine. Such a tax could raise billions of dollars of revenue, he says. This tax idea is modeled on the extra taxes levied on tobacco products, which have been effective in reducing their use, Brownell says.

But others don't think sugary sodas should be cast as the main villain in America's battle of the bulge, and research has shown that moderate amounts of alcoholic beverages can have some health benefits.

"The complexities of health-care reform aren't going to be solved by a tax on soda pop," says Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, which represents the non-alcoholic beverage industry. "It's discriminatory. Why single out one product? It would not even make a dent in addressing the health-care challenge or the obesity challenge."

Sugary drinks stick out

Two-thirds of people in this country are overweight or obese, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many other health problems.

"When we look at overweight and obesity, sodas and sugary beverages stick out like a sore thumb as a cause," says Walter Willett, head of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Willett, Brownell and others say sugary beverages have a unique role in weight gain, because when people drink high-calorie beverages, they don't compensate completely by decreasing the calories they consume the rest of the day.

Plus, these drinks are mostly empty calories that don't provide any nutrients to the diet, says Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. On average, people in the USA are consuming 217 more calories a day in the form of sugary drinks than they were 25 years ago, he says.

But Keane points out that a recent weight-loss study showed a calorie is a calorie, and people can shed pounds on a variety of diets with different nutrient compositions. "We need to be focusing on calorie balance if you want to address weight issues."

Any extra tax on these beverages would hurt the poor and middle-class families struggling through a recession, says Keane. "It would hurt most those who can least afford to pay it," he says.

Willett says, "In some ways the beverage industry is right. You can't blame the whole obesity epidemic on sodas, but you can blame a big hunk on it." Taxing sodas wouldn't solve the problem completely, but it would help, he says.

Alcohol is complicated

From a health standpoint, increasing taxes on alcoholic beverages is more complex, nutrition experts say. Much has been written in recent years about the potential health benefits of moderate drinking, which is defined as the consumption of up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.

The relationship between alcohol and health is a double-edged sword, Willett says, because people who have one or two drinks a day have a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, and they have longer life expectancy. But those who drink more than two drinks a day run into a higher risk of alcoholism, cancer and even cardiovascular disease. He says an extra tax on alcohol would discourage heavy drinking.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says he "strongly favors" increased taxes on alcoholic beverages. "Everyone agrees that there are some health benefits to moderate drinking, but heavy drinking causes tremendous havoc. Many people become alcoholics at a young age, and alcohol can cause liver cirrhosis and several types of cancer."

Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, says his group is working closely with the wine and spirit industry to oppose these taxes. "Taxes are a blunt instrument that do not significantly affect abusive consumers.

"Abusive consumers will shift to something that is cheaper but continue to drink abusively. So really all you are doing is punishing moderate consumers, who gain health benefits from their moderate consumption."

By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY

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