In New York state, more than 60 percent of adults are either overweight or obese; and nationally, the obesity rate climbed to a record 27.7 percent this spring.
There’s little question that sugarsweetened beverages are a big part of the problem, because we drink a ton of the stuff and each 12-ounce serving contains about eight teaspoons — 136 calories — of sugar. Many Americans don’t stop at 12 ounces, of course: 20 became the new normal about a decade or so ago, and “Big Gulp” servings top out at a quart.
Obesity is a huge — no pun intended — national health issue, contributing to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, breathing problems, cancer and osteoarthritis. The annual tab for treating these afflictions approaches $10 billion in New York state alone, much of which is borne by taxpayers through Medicaid. So the public clearly has an interest in doing something about it.
State and local government officials (starting with Gov. David Paterson five years ago) tried reducing consumption, proposing things like a penny-an-ounce soda tax or a limit on serving sizes. But the ensuing political firestorms and an unwilling judiciary put a stop to those efforts.
Now the issue is being addressed more fairly at the national level. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro — a Democrat from Connnecticut and the lawmaker responsible for getting restaurants to furnish the nutritional content of their menu items — this week proposed a penny-a-teaspoon tax. The proceeds would subsidize healthier eating in schools and through the federal Food Stamp program.
Not surprisingly, there’s little support for the idea in an election year. It would add roughly 10 cents to the price of a can of soda, raising $10 billion a year in the process. How much of a dent it would put on consumption is anybody’s guess: Sugar may not be physiologically addicting, but many Americans behave like they’re hooked on those drinks. And many of the biggest consumers of these products are poor — who, perhaps not coincidentally, have the highest obesity rates — so it’s possible that raising the price would hurt enough to help.
We tax cigarettes and alcohol to discourage their overuse. Why not soda, which is a heavy contributor to one of the nation’s biggest health issues?
It certainly seems worth a try.
And doing so in all 50 states, rather than a city or state here or there, seems the fairest way.