Can Soda Taxes Lead to Weight Loss?

(Tessek: Flickr)

(Tessek: Flickr)

My KQED colleague Mina Kim produced a great piece examining whether higher soda prices leads to weight loss — and the health benefits that come with it. She profiled a 17-year-old football player from Tracy — Jorge Cota, who at 5’11” weighed 321 pounds. He had high blood pressure and may have had heart and kidney problems. That was a year ago.

While Cota since has made many diet changes, the first thing he did was cut out his drink of choice, Dr. Pepper. He had been drinking two or three cans or bottles a day.

He’s since lost 70 pounds, Kim reports.

Still, Cota told Kim that he doubts a penny-per-ounce soda tax would make a difference in soda consumption. After all, a 20-ounce soda would go up only 20 cents.

Kim turned to Kelly Brownell, head of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. As she reports:

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.

As State of Health reported earlier this year, not only does the reduced consumption reduce health care costs, researchers say, it can also save lives. Reduced consumption equals modest weight loss, which reduces risk of diabetes, and over 10 years researchers estimated 26,000 lives would be saved (or “premature deaths” avoided).

Last December, when the Richmond City Council was debating whether to investigate putting a soda tax on the ballot, I talked to Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. As I reported then:

Goldstein cites a study from UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health which looked at average daily caloric consumption from 1977-2001 and found the average American was eating 278 more calories each day. Almost half of those calories were from sweetened drinks. “The results were mind-blowing,” he said, but added, “I realize in my adult lifetime, the beverage industry has changed dramatically. It used to be one little glass with ice. If you wanted more, you had to pay more. Every restaurant now provides free refills. What comes out of the vending machine has gone from 12 ounces to 20 ounces.”

And all of those ounces come with calories.

People may oppose a soda tax for all kinds of reasons. Indeed Kim closes her piece with discussions from opponents who say it will drive people away from local businesses, that the tax flows into the general fund and is not mandated to be spent on anti-obesity programs (although voters can approve a non-binding measure to direct the money to sports fields and the like), but one thing is certain: sugary beverages are getting the national attention public health advocates have been pushing for.

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