There is a movement afoot across the nation encouraging consumers to think twice before popping open a can of soda. The reason is clear and the medical evidence is in: sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs, have been linked to the obesity explosion taking place throughout America.
Unlike other foods, SSBs — which include soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened bottled coffee or tea, and sweetened fruit or vegetable drinks — have no nutritional value. They are empty calories that simply deliver sugar rather than replacement calories for other foods a person might eat. SSBs are the only food that researchers have consistently linked to the obesity epidemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, and obesity is now the second-largest contributor to premature death in the United States.
Obesity leads to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes; an estimated one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
Meanwhile, obesity-related health care costs continue to climb, and these costs are borne by individuals, businesses and the government. According to a report issued last July, U.S. health care costs due to obesity have reached $147 billion, double what they were 10 years ago.
Worse yet, children who consume more soft drinks consume more calories (about 55 to 190 per day) than kids who drink fewer soft drinks, and are more likely to become overweight. The public health risks associated with the consumption of SSBs top the list of critical medical issues facing millions of children and adults each year. Many elected officials are now beginning to grasp the impact SSBs have on health;
— In recent months, cities and states throughout the country have been considering implementing a high tax designed to curb SSB consumption. According to statistics from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 35 localities already tax SSBs as a revenue-generating measure. The new proposals, like those in New York to levy a penny per ounce tax and Philadelphia’s proposed two cents per ounce tax, transform fiscal measures into public health interventions.
— Unfortunately, most Americans remain unaware of the role that soft-drink consumption plays in our nation’s twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes. We now live in an environment where there are all too many sources of excess calories, but sugar-sweetened beverages play an especially prominent role in our sugar-laden diets. The beverage industry spends billions of dollars each year marketing its products, with a special focus on children and adolescents. The result is that the average American is consuming 46 gallons of SSBs a year — the equivalent of 40 pounds of sugar.
— Since the beverage industry also has hundreds of appealing low-calorie and no-calorie products (over 130 from the three largest beverage companies alone), the industry can play an important role in this overall strategy by promoting healthier options like natural juices, water and skim milk that do not contribute to overweight and would not be taxed.
We all know that losing weight and keeping weight off is extremely difficult. Doctors report it is especially challenging counseling families with an overweight or obese child. Our only hope for reducing rates of obesity is to prevent people, especially children, from consuming excess calories in the first place.
The Institute of Medicine has recommended surcharges as a strategy for reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Multiple studies show that when the prices of unhealthy foods or products are raised, people switch to healthier foods.
Combined with educational programming in schools and communities and with policies that increase the options available to families who want and need better access to fresh, healthy foods, SSB taxes could be part of a successful approach to combating obesity.
This is an exciting opportunity to take bold, evidence-based research to a new level.
We cannot afford to be passive when it comes to ensuring the safety, health, and well-being of adults and children at risk of becoming obese and developing potentially debilitating chronic diseases.
The choice is clear: supporting SSB taxes as part of a larger anti-obesity strategy means supporting better health for all Americans.
Jo Ivey Boufford is president of the New York Academy of Medicine.