Sunday, July 24, 2011

Will Soda Soon be Taxed? (Article)

From the article:

Though experts increasingly recommend a diet high in plants and low in animal products and processed foods, ours is quite the opposite, and there’s little disagreement that changing it could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives.

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available. 

Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit. 

“Excise taxes have the benefit of being incorporated into the shelf price, and that’s where consumers make their purchasing decisions,” says Lisa Powell, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “And, as per-unit taxes, they avoid volume discounts and are ultimately more effective in raising prices, so they have greater impact.” 

Currently, instead of taxing sodas and other unhealthful food, we subsidize them (with, I might note, tax dollars!). Direct subsidies to farmers for crops like corn (used, for example, to make now-ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup) and soybeans (vegetable oil) keep the prices of many unhealthful foods and beverages artificially low. There are indirect subsidies as well, because prices of junk foods don’t reflect the costs of repairing our health and the environment.

The need is dire: efforts to shift the national diet have failed, because education alone is no match for marketing dollars that push the very foods that are the worst for us. (The fast-food industry alone spent more than $4 billion on marketing in 2009; the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is asking for about a third of a percent of that in 2012: $13 million.)

Health-related obesity costs are projected to reach $344 billion by 2018 — with roughly 60 percent of that cost borne by the federal government. For a precedent in attacking this problem, look at the action government took in the case of tobacco.

A study by Y. Claire Wang, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, predicted that a penny tax per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages in New York State would save $3 billion in health care costs over the course of a decade, prevent something like 37,000 cases of diabetes and bring in $1 billion annually. Another study shows that a two-cent tax per ounce in Illinois would reduce obesity in youth by 18 percent, save nearly $350 million and bring in over $800 million taxes annually.

(Currently, 86 percent of food ads now seen by children are for foods high in sugar, fat or sodium.)

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