Can a Penny-an-Ounce Soda Tax Curb Obesity?

Jorge Cota has lost more than 70 pounds since giving up soda and making other changes to his diet. (Mina Kim: KQED)

Jorge Cota, 17, has lost more than 70 pounds since giving up soda and making other changes to his diet. (Mina Kim: KQED)

Jorge Cota says he always gets a little nervous when he comes to Children’s Hospital in Oakland for his bi-monthly weigh-in.

“I’m wondering oh, did I lose this much weight, or did I not lose this much, if I gain weight I’m going to be mad,” says the 17-year-old high school football player from Tracy. “It’s just a lot of things going through my mind that I get nervous about when I come to the doctors, especially here.”

It was here at Children’s, about a year ago, that Jorge learned his health was in trouble.

“They told me that I was a pre-diabetic, that I also had high blood pressure, and they thought there was something wrong with my heart or my kidneys.”

“It was a scary moment,” Jorge’s mom Linda Ramos says. “When they were telling us, he started crying, he was scared, and that woke him up.”

At 16, Jorge was 5’11” and weighed 321 pounds.

“So I was a pretty big boy,” Jorge says with a smile.

His drink of choice was Dr. Pepper. Jorge says he’d drink two or three cans or bottles of soda a day. That added up to as much as 50 teaspoons of sugar.

“We just cut it out,” Linda Ramos says. “Not only the soda cut out, the way I cook at home for him, the junk food, the way we shop.”

Ramos also took nutrition classes where she learned to read food labels. Jorge made changes, too. He stopped going to the corner store on his way home from school. He started ordering salads at restaurants and drinking water with his meals. Jorge has lost more than 70 pounds this past year and is a valuable member of his football team.

As for those Dr. Peppers: “If it’s there, I’m not craving it. I haven’t craved it for a while.”

Jorge’s doctor, June Tester, says that’s a big deal. Tester co-directs the weight-management clinic at Children’s Hospital. She says an entire generation has grown up with the expectation that a beverage should be sweet. She says getting kids off of them requires nothing short of retraining their taste buds.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to say, ‘Milk is not just something to go with your cereal, it’s actually a beverage,'” Tester says.

Tester sees the kids other doctors haven’t been able to help. She says that as in Jorge’s story, it takes a lot more than cutting out sugary drinks to help kids lose weight. Tester’s team includes physicians, nutritionists, exercise physiologists and psychologists.

“We have clinic visits that are all individually tailored to the kid and their family,” Tester says. “We also work a fair bit with community partners like the YMCA, partly to create more activities for kids to do.”

So how much of a difference would it make if city officials raised the price of a can or bottle of soda? Two California cities — Richmond near San Francisco, and El Monte near Los Angeles — could find out. That’s if voters pass their measures to tax sugar-sweetened beverages by a penny per ounce. That would make a 20-ounce bottle of soda cost 20 cents more. Jorge Cota says for teens like him, that won’t do much.

“No, I think they’ll still buy it, no matter what; anything that goes up, they’re still going to want to buy it,” Cota says.

But Kelly Brownell, head of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, disagrees. His group has studied how pricing changes affect consumer behavior.

“The penny-per-ounce which is the level of tax being discussed the most around the country is enough to affect consumption, somewhere between 10 or 20 percent or so,” Brownell says. “[That] would be enough to not make it a terrible burden on consumers, but would affect consumption of the product enough to reduce health care costs.”

More importantly, Brownell says, passage of the tax would give a big boost to the national trend away from sugary drinks that’s already begun in school districts and communities where demand for fresh local food is growing.

“When the beverage industry claims that this really won’t affect consumption patterns, then why in the world are they fighting it so hard?” Brownell asks.

Opponents of the beverage tax say both measures would slap low-income residents with higher grocery bills and drive away customers from small businesses, which would be charged one cent for every ounce of soda they sell.

A group funded by the soda industry has poured more than $2 million into Richmond alone to defeat its Measure N. Chuck Finnie with the “No on N” campaign says Richmond officials’ claims that they’ll use the tax revenue to fund anti-obesity programs is false.

“All of the money flows directly into the general fund, unrestricted,” Finnie says. “Not a single penny is being raised specifically for anti-obesity programs.”

According to Richmond city estimates, the tax is expected to generate from $2 million to $8 million. A companion measure advises the city council to spend the money on sports fields and nutrition education.

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  • John

    CRVs on soda cans/bottles and sales tax did nothing to rectify obesity. Vote NO to anything that initiates or increases tax. It’s another way the government wants to steal money to feed its’ spending addictions.