The Center for Science in the Public Interest believes that many states might be able to close gaps in their budgets by placing a tax on soda and other sugary drinks.
The health advocacy group released a study this week that estimates budget-strapped states -- including California -- could generate a combined $10 billion a year by levying a tax of 7 cents per 12-ounce can of Coke or other beverage. Currently, 25 states impose special taxes on sugary drinks.
The group, which is lobbying for such taxes and has suggested a national excise tax on sugared drinks, said raising the price of the beverages would reduce consumption. It believes that would lower the incidence of obesity, diabetes and other costly chronic diseases.
But others see such taxes as government intrusion on personal choice.
"The tax code should not be used as a tool for social engineering. Nor should it be an instrument for penalizing individuals' personal food choices -- choices that some government officials find distasteful," said J. Justin Wilson, senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom.
"Taxing soda pop is another paternalistic policy idea, which holds that politicians and government regulators, rather than individual citizens, should decide every aspect of what, where and when we eat."
The American Beverage Assn. also objects.
"The association between sugar-sweetened soft drinks and obesity, if it exists at all, is so weak," the trade group has said in response to previous calls for higher taxes.
Nonetheless, the concept may get a push from the Obama administration. President Obama has said he might consider a tax on sugared drinks, believing that it could help lower healthcare expenditures.
"Every study that's been done about obesity shows that there is as high a correlation between increased soda consumption and obesity as just about anything else. Obviously it's not the only factor, but it is a major factor," the president said in a recent interview in Men's Health magazine.
"President Obama is exactly right when he says kids are drinking too much soda," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Soda is dirt cheap and promotes expensive and debilitating diseases, which in turn run up healthcare costs at all levels of government."
Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor, is one of a number of food experts who believe that the movement to tax sugared drinks is gaining steam. In a post to the HealthierTalk.com website, Nestle said such a tax could be effective in limiting consumption.