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AMA set to vote on soda taxes, with funds targeted to fight obesity

June 18, 2012|By Mary MacVean
  • The American Medical Assn. is set to vote on a proposal supporting soda taxes as a way to pay for programs that fight obesity.
The American Medical Assn. is set to vote on a proposal supporting soda taxes… (Emile Wamsteker / Bloomberg…)

The American Medical Assn. is expected to weigh in on the soda conversation this week. It is slated to consider a proposal that supports soda taxes as one way to pay for programs to fight obesity and that says if soda taxes are imposed, the money should go to such programs.

Taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages has become an increasingly popular proposal to help fight obesity and related conditions. Despite substantial research, opinions remain divided, the AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health says in its report. The council looked at a range of studies and proposals.

The AMA is holding its annual meeting in Chicago this week, and the soda proposal is to go to the full House of Delegates of the AMA for a vote, possibly Tuesday. Proposals at previous AMA annual meetings to support taxes on sugary beverages failed.

In its report, the AMA council notes that sugary drinks make up 46% of the added sugar Americans eat, often in place of foods that are “rich in micronutrients.” Sweetened drinks make it hard for people to eat food that gives them the necessary nutrients without overeating, the report says.

Sugary drinks have been “strongly and consistently associated” with weight gain, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, the report says.

New York City’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, recently suggested another way: He has proposed a ban on the sale of sodas of more than 16 ounces at theaters, arenas and many other venues. That plan, which would take effect in March, has sparked a lively public conversation about sweetened beverages.

The AMA council report says that current research models predict that a tax of a penny an ounce on sweetened drinks would lead to a 5% reduction in the prevalence of overweight and obesity and reduce medical costs by $17 billion over 10 years.

That effect could be increased if the tax revenue could be targeted for obesity programs, including such ideas as improved access to drinking water at schools.

The report says such taxes alone are unlikely to have a significant effect on obesity and related condtions, but the council says that “a wide array of efforts are necessary” and that taxes are one way governments can fund those efforts.

Sugar-sweetened drinks have been “strongly and consistently” associated with increased body weight and a number of related conditions, “particularly in those studies not funded by the beverage industry,” the council’s report says.

Federal dietary guidelines advise people to drink water instead of sugary drinks and to limit added sugars to 100 calories or less for women, 150 for men. Twelve ounces of most sugary drinks contain 130 to 150 calories of added sugars, the report says.

Supporters of taxes on sweetened drinks cite the role of tobacco and alcohol taxes in reducing rates of smoking and alcohol consumption; opponents question whether sugary drinks should be singled out among contributors to obesity and whether taxes would work.

As of July 2011, sugar-sweetened sodas were taxed in 35 states, at an average rate of 5.2%, the AMA report says. The taxes seem to have had only a “minimal” effect on overweight and obesity, the report says. But it notes that, in most cases, the taxes were not meant to affect consumption or to fund health programs.

The impact is not surprising, the report says. “Sales taxes are generally paid after the purchase decision has been made and are easily minimized through purchases of larger containers, cheaper brands” and other means.

That’s why, the report says, an excise tax of a penny per ounce has been proposed as a more effective idea. That would be a larger tax and one imposed on producers and wholesalers. Such a tax is estimated to reduce sugary drink consumption 10% to 25%, which one analysis cited in the report says could reduce premature death by 26,000 instances over 10 years.

Efforts to discourage consumption of sugary drinks may result in increased consumption of diet beverages,  which needs further study, the council says.

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