Why a Soda Tax Matters

Soda Tax

Over the last several years, there have been over 30 proposed taxes on sugary beverages.  Sugary drinks (such as soda, fruit drinks, and sports drinks) are the single biggest source of added sugar in our diet today, and these drinks have very little, if any, healthy ingredients in them. Now, there is strong scientific evidence that they are also linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Drinking sugary beverages does not make you feel full, which means that drinking 240 calories in a 20-ounce soda will not keep you from eating 240 fewer calories later. All those extra calories, day-after-day, begin to add up and turn into weight gain.

With all of that in mind, motives for this type of legislation are not surprising.  Hoping to match the effectiveness of taxes on tobacco, supporters believe a soda tax will discourage consumption of unhealthy drinks, offset the cost of obesity, and raise revenue for health and wellness initiatives.  Economists have determined that if the price of sugary drinks goes up 10 percent, consumption will go down by about 10-12 percent.  A tax of only a penny-per-ounce, would raise the cost of the average sugary drink by about 15-20 percent. This would be more than enough to reduce the amount that people buy, and the funds could be used on obesity prevention and health promotion programs.

Not surprisingly, the beverage industry has used their lobbying dollars to stymie these efforts, with great success.  But that hasn’t stopped legislators from continuing to make proposals.  Berkeley and San Francisco are the latest examples – both with soda taxes on the ballot for the upcoming November 4th election.  Whether you live in one of these municipalities or not, there are several reasons why you should care about the outcome of these initiatives.

1. A soda tax will work. Last year, Mexico passed a penny per ounce tax on soda and junk food, despite the large amounts of money beverage companies spent to prevent it.  Just as the companies feared, soda consumption dropped almost immediately in Mexico by several percentage points. And as advocate, Patrick Mustain, points out:

The amount of energy being poured into fighting these taxes is a pretty good indication that the industry, with all its well-funded market and consumer research, knows that if sugary drinks begin to be taxed, then consumption of these products will indeed begin to drop.

To date, the beverage industry has spent 1.6 million fighting the tax in Berkeley and a staggering 7.7 million in San Francisco.

2. It will change norms.  While beverage companies may try to convince you otherwise, a soda tax will not raise the price of all groceries.  It will raise the price of sugary drinks, which are not a grocery staple.  They are an indulgence.  Or, at least they should be.  Beverage companies have become quite good at getting people to consumer more sugary drinks (and in larger quantities) than they probably would naturally.  Sugary drinks are the default beverage accompanying fast food meals, can be found in coolers in nearly every store checkout lane,  are marketed as a size “small” even when the portion is 3-4 times the recommended serving size, and are almost always available with “free refills” at restaurants. A tax on these beverages reinforces the notion that these sugary drinks are a treat, and should be treated as such.

3. It will set a precedent. A soda tax passing anywhere in the United States, even in a more progressive area like Berkeley or San Francisco, is likely to ignite similar measures throughout the country.  Especially once data can be accumulated to prove it’s effectiveness.  California was the first state to ban smoking in restaurants and bars all the way back in 1998.  Now, it’s become so commonplace across the US, that entering an establishment that allows smoking seems uncomfortable.

4. It paves the way for other public health initiatives. Once health advocates realized that education wasn’t enough to reduce tobacco use, a multitude of polices were proposed to tackle the problem – which as we know, is what really caused smoking rates to finally drop.  Soda taxes are likely only the first of many policy initiatives that will be used to decrease consumption of sugary drinks.  Policy makers and health advocates haven’t given up on methods such as warning labels on packaging and serving size restrictions. By following tobacco’s example, maybe an effective tax could even lead to restrictions on the marketing of sugary drinks to children, or the removal of soda vending machines.  It may seem far-fetched, but I’m sure the same was thought of the restrictions put on cigarettes when they were first proposed.

Currently, rates of obesity and overweight show no signs of dropping, and more and more healthcare dollars are being used to treat diet related disease.  We know that sugary drinks are part of the problem.  Reducing consumption makes good economic and public health sense. A tax on sugary drinks can help make it possible.

Another reason to stop marketing junk food to kids

According to a new study, the more familiar a child is with logos and other images from popular fast food restaurants, snack foods, and sodas, the more likely the child is be overweight or obese. To come to this conclusion, researchers tested preschooler’s knowledge of various brands, including their ability to identify items such as silly rabbits and the golden arches, and found that those who could identify these icons the most, tended to have higher body mass indexes (BMI’s).

Trix are for kids

Studies like this speak volumes about the public health concern that is food marketing to children. On television alone, the average U.S. child sees approximately 13 food commercials every day. The food products advertised are almost exclusively for high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, candy, and sugary drinks. And companies are starting to get more creative. You can find youth targeted food marketing in schools, on websites, and through social media. The messages kids receive from this advertising are to pester their parents to buy the products, and that consuming high-calorie, nutritionally-poor foods will result in happiness and fun.

Some argue that since young children don’t generally purchase their own food – than the onus should lie in the hands of the parents to protect kids from these messages. When kids nag their parents for the products they’ve seen in advertising, parents should just say, “no.” Or better yet, parents should just shield their children from being marketed to in the first place. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned, this requires more work than just turning off the television. See this great video from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity:

For those parents that aren’t savvy enough to safeguard their children from the $2 billion dollars’ worth of food marketing directed at them every year, it’s the children who pay the price. Companies spend this kind of money marketing to kids because it works. It builds brand loyalty and preferences for unhealthy products at a very early age, likely to last a lifetime. Authors of this study site this as the most troubling potential consequence of their research. They noted that the findings provided insight into children’s relationship with food, and what food means to them.  If a relationship with these brands can already be negatively impacting their weight and health at 3-5 years old, surely it is possible that it will continue to do so.

No matter where we place the blame, one thing is for sure: There is nothing positive that can result from this type of targeted marketing to young people. Exploiting children’s vulnerabilities to make a buck is shameful and as some would argue – even abusive. In fact, Brazil, has made all advertising to children illegal based on this point.

Their resolution states:

The practice of directing advertising and marketing communication to children with the intention of persuading them to consume any product or service is abusive and, therefore, illegal as per the Consumer Defense Code.

Meanwhile, the United States struggles to pass even measly voluntary guidelines for food companies on what types of food they should and should not market to youth. In this country, lobbying speaks louder than common sense public health measures.  Hopefully, studies such as this will help build the case for policies to protect our nation’s children as well.

Marion Nestle’s message on Food Politics: We need social solutions

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a presentation from Marion Nestle at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Marion is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, a renowned food policy advocate, and author of one my favorite books, Food Politics.  Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing; so you can imagine my excitement about seeing her speak.

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Much of the information that Marion presented was not new to me, however, I still found her messages to be powerful and motivating.

First, Marion outlined how we have gotten ourselves into the obesity epidemic that we currently face:

  • Since 1980, the number of calories available in our food supply have increased to twice the average need per person per day.
  • Dietary intake is up 200 calories per person per day.  This is according to what individuals report, which as we know, is probably lower than what is actually consumed.
  • Federal policy (including corn and soybean subsidies) have lead to processed junk foods that are cheaper than raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Food companies have to report to Wall Street every 90 days.  In this heavily scrutinized and competitive market, companies have to continue to sell more in order to grow, which means increasing the amount of food that consumers take in.
  • Food marketing is loosely regulated (mostly by the food companies themselves),  allowing for a lot of deception and manipulation, especially for our most vulnerable populations — children and minorities.
  • Companies use health claims like “fat-free”, “cholesterol-free”, and “sugar-free” which studies have shown trick consumers into treating the products like they are also “calorie-free”.
  • Junk food products are showing up everywhere: Drug stores, Office supply stores, etc.  There are very few places you can go without at least finding a vending machine filled with candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
  • We live in an environment that encourages us to eat more.  Exercising personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance in this type of environment.
  • Food companies have drastically increased portion sizes of their meals since the 1950′s.  The CDC released a great infographic to display this:

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  • Even if they wanted to, the food industry can’t make any changes to their products and practices if it will negatively affect their bottom line.

So what does all this mean? Should we all just accept defeat in this obesigenic environment? Not according to Marion.

Her solution is twofold:

1) Vote with your fork:   Exercise your power as a consumer.  McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Every time you buy a food product, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it.  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the opposite is also true.

Even more importantly…

2) Vote with your vote: Changing our food environment requires social solutions, not just personal responsibility.  We need to educate consumers through menu labeling, media campaigns and honest food labels.  We need restrictions like nutrition standards for schools and foods marketed to children.  We need taxes on harmful products like sugary drinks to deter over-consumption.  We need to restructure government subsidies to  make healthful, unprocessed foods cheaper.  We even need the occasional ban for dangerous industry-created substances like trans-fats.

While the concepts are simple, actually implementing them is much more challenging.  For starters, we need legislators and policy makers that are more interested in public health than corporate health, and a constituency to back them up.

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If you haven’t read any of Marion Nestle’s work before, I highly recommend checking out her blog. Michael Pollan ranked her as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama), and Mark Bittman ranked her #1 in his list of foodies to be thankful for.  I couldn’t agree more.

Public Health Campaigns Tackling Childhood Obesity: The Bad vs. The Good

Last year, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta released a highly controversial anti-obesity ad campaign aimed at parents of overweight and obese children.  While the ads were meant to draw attention to the childhood obesity epidemic, their effectiveness was called into question by many parents and health experts, myself included.  The intentions of CHOA may have been good, but the campaign seemed much more likely to increase stigmatization against overweight children and make them feel ashamed of their bodies, rather than encourage healthy habits.

Here is an example of one of their ads, in case you missed it.

CHOA-Diorama_2

In response to this campaign, Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research and weight stigma at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale stated , “Messages that focus on promoting specific health behaviors are likely to be more effective” than messages focused on weight.

Which is exactly what Contra Costa County is doing with their newly released ad campaign:

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For several reasons, I love this campaign.

First, as mentioned above, it focuses on a single health behavior, reducing children’s consumption of sugary drinks.

Second, it is clearly targeting juice ‘drinks’, as opposed to soda (which most parents know isn’t healthy).  Juice products, even those with added sugar and artificial sweeteners, have developed a health halo in America, thanks in part to some strategic marketing by the food and beverage industry. Sure, a small amount of 100% juice is fine for kids every once in awhile, but juice provides a high amount of calories packed into a small portion and lacks the fiber and nutrients that whole fruit provides.

I also like that the campaign mentions all of the issues associated with over-consumption of sugary drinks including cavities, weight gain, and chronic disease.

While the effectiveness of mass media public health campaigns varies, at least this sets a positive example for other organizations looking to develop something similar for their own communities.