Saturday, March 5, 2011

A California Soda Tax: How it Can Help the Obesity Problem

Last week, Assemblymember Bill Monning (D-27) introduced AB669, a bill that would impose a one cent per ounce tax on every soda and sugar sweetened beverage sold in California. The bill would create the Children's Health Promotion Fund, raising $1.7 billion a year for programs that are facing severe cuts due to the state budget crisis including school lunch programs and physical education programs. Funds could also be used to develop new programs targeted at obesity prevention in children, including enhancing community parks and other targeted endeavors.

Is a soda tax a realistic solution? Here are some numbers to consider from CCPHA and Michael Pollan:

-Per capita soda consumption has increased nearly 250% over the last 30 years
-Added sweeteners represent 16% of the average daily dietary intake
-Since 1985 the percent of personal income spent on food has decreased from 15% to 10%, but the real price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 40% while the real price of packaged food and soft drinks has decreased by 25%
-56% of California adults are obese or overweight, and now 28% of children are as well
-An estimated $41 billion is spent every year in California as a result of chronic disease costs, most notably diabetes.

Food prices are a significant factor in regard to these trends, and people are inherently cost conscious in what they purchase, especially low income individuals. Research has shown that food cost plays a significant role in diet, and overall economic factors may be a much larger influence than lifestyle or personal will. Simply put, the current system is geared to make the most unhealthy calories in the marketplace the only ones that poor people can afford (who also tend to have higher obesity rates). 

It is hard to argue against the fact that obesity rates have reached epidemic proportions. Strategies to combat the epidemic must be multifactorial, and a modest fee on one of the greatest culprits would not only help raise funds to better target obesity, but also justify the issue as a top public priority in order to reduce future health care costs. Skeptics of a new levy may see this as just another 'tax and spend' maneuver, but it is important to understand that the health and productivity costs associated with complications from obesity are astronomical. As such, a concerted effort to target this risk factor will pay off as savings in the long term in both community ratings for health insurance (your premiums) and Medicare costs.

Moreso, it seems quite irrational to have public dollars funding an unhealthy system that public health dollars try to combat. Taxpayer supported agricultural subsidies (to the tune of the Farm Bill's $25 billion a year) for products such as corn, soybeans, and wheat have decreased the price of energy-dense foods. As a result, we are now experiencing lowered food quality with manufactured low-cost substances like high fructose corn syrup in soda. In order to truly curb the obesity epidemic, it will be necessary to examine quality and health ‘costs’ in addition to quantity and market costs in food production. Shifting subsidies to healthier food products would not only promote cheaper and healthier choices in the market as a whole, but would more importantly set the national agenda as being more health-conscious as opposed to solely market conscious. Consumers will continue to search for the best value (calorie) per dollar, and though it is ultimately their choice as to what food they purchase it is of the utmost importance for future policy to protect and promote the nutritional values of our food products.

1 comment:

  1. this catch-22 of cheap food being among the worst for you drives me absolutely nuts, especially since the problem is layers upon layers deep

    one cent per ounce -- so a 2L would go from the usual price I've seen, $0.99, to $1.63ish. Is that really enough of an up-tick to reduce consumption?