Can A Soda Tax Really Save Lives?
January 10, 2012

Can A Soda Tax Really Save Lives?

UPDATE: Beverage industry responds to Health Affairs paper on sugar-sweetened beverage taxes - Download PDF

A nationwide tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would help prevent heart disease and stroke and could prevent as many as 26,000 deaths per year, according to new data from universities and hospitals in the United States.

Americans consume 13.8 billions of gallons of soda, sports drinks, sweet tea, and sugary beverages every year, which is fueling obesity and diabetes rates across the country. The joint efforts of scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (SFGH) and Columbia University say that a nationwide tax of a penny-per-ounce on sweetened beverages could prevent 100,000 cases of heart disease and 8,000 strokes every year.

“You would also prevent 240,000 cases of diabetes per year,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an associate professor of medicine and of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF and acting director of the Center for Vulnerable Populations at SFGH.

“Our hope is that these types of numbers are useful for policy makers to weigh decisions,” she said.

A tax could also save more than $17 billion in healthcare costs over 10 years and generate $13 billion a year in tax revenues.

Over the past decade, Americans consumed more sugary beverages than ever before. These drinks are the largest source of added sugar and excess calories in the American diet and are the single largest factor in the current obesity epidemic.

Many states already have taxes in place on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, but experts believe many of those taxes are too low to impact consumption on a larger scale.

In a joint study conducted at Columbia University Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco, researchers estimated that if a higher, penny-per-ounce tax were imposed on sugary drinks, it would result in a 15 percent reduction in consumption of those types of beverages.

The researchers, reporting in the online edition of Health Affairs this month, estimated that, over a ten year period (2010-2020), the penny-per-ounce tax could reduce new cases of diabetes by 2.6 percent, as many as 95,000 coronary heart events, and 26,000 premature deaths.

“While there is some uncertainty as to what drinks people would choose instead of taxed beverages, our conclusion that a penny-per-ounce tax would reduce consumption by 15 percent is actually a conservative estimate,” said Y. Claire Wang, MD, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University´s Mailman School of Public Health.

Wang noted that the tax would have the greatest impact among younger adults and men of all ages, who drink more sugar-sweetened beverages than older adults and women.

The researchers compiled data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for the years 2003 and a questionnaire on food choices and frequency of meals. They looked at two ways that a decrease in sugary beverage consumption would impact health: overall weight reduction and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.

According to the research, the team determined that a combination of water, diet drinks, and more nutritious beverages would likely replace sugary beverages, resulting in an estimated savings of as many as 60 calories for every 100 calories of sugar-sweetened drinks not consumed.

“With the estimated number of 860,000 fewer obese adults aged 25—-64, and given the greater reductions in consumption among younger people, the longer-term health benefits would be far greater than the impacts during the first 10 years,” said Wang.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that reducing the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages as one of its chief obesity prevention strategies in 2009, and several states and cities, including California and NYC, are already considering such taxes.

Sugary drinks are cheap to buy, but they cost the country as whole a lot; nearly $174 billion per year on diabetes treatment costs and $147 billion on other obesity-related health problems. The researchers note that even if all the calories saved by cutting soda consumption were replaced and body weight remained the same, cutting consumption would still reduce diabetes and heart disease.

Opponents of a soda tax say that it would burden low-income households, which purchase more sugar-sweetened beverages than those in higher-income brackets.

Wang and her colleagues noted that the evidence is mixed regarding whether low-income consumers are more price-sensitive when it comes to these beverages. In addition, because low-income people and racial and ethnic minorities bear a greater burden of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, these groups stand to benefit the most from such a tax policy.

“Sugary soft drinks really are liquid candy, and their low purchase price hides the true costs of health problems associated with them,” said study coauthor Lee Goldman, MD, MPH, of Columbia University Medical Center. “Our model estimates that a penny-per-ounce tax would substantially reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease among adults in the United States.”


On the Net: