June 16, 2014

It is well-known that America has an obesity problem. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 34.9 percent of all Americans are obese. The obesity rates among African Americans are even higher: 47.8 percent. About 42 percent of Latinos are obese, along with about 33 percent of non-Hispanic whites. By contrast, only about 11 percent of Asians in the United States are obese. A major driving factor behind these shocking figures can be linked to the American diet, which is largely derived from sugar.

Related article: The Mexican Soda Tax

Sweet as Sugar

Sugary drinks are an especially prevalent culprit, as they represent almost nothing but empty calories. There have been several attempts to curtail the consumption of fattening foods and especially sugary substances. This includes former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ill-fated attempt to ban the sale of sugary drinks in selected establishments. But while the proposed cup-size ban was one of the most attention-getting proposed measures, it was hardly unique. Mexico proposed its own tax of one peso per liter of sugary drinks sold within the country in October 2013.

In 2011, Denmark went even further, instituting a ban on saturated fats. It was repealed the following year due to administrative burden and sheer unenforceability. People simply crossed the border into Germany or France where the ban was not in effect. So legislation to curtail consumption of sugary drinks is dead, right?

Taxing Ourselves to Health

Not so much. A recently-published study by the American Journal of Agricultural Economics suggests that such bans may be just the ticket for cutting the consumption of a substance linked to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. According to the study, a tax of just 6 cents on a 12-oz can of pop could result in the consumption of 5,800 fewer calories from sugar by consumers every year. The logic makes sense. Many smokers and ex-smokers cite hefty taxes on cigarettes as an incentive to kick the habit.

Nonetheless, it is fair to say that instituting such a tax would require a heavy lift. A measure proposed by Massachusetts to extend its stiff 6.5 percent sales tax to candy and sugary drinks failed. A 2012 proposal by Florida to prohibit the purchase of junk food and sugary snacks with food stamps also failed. This proposed measure could be viewed as discriminatory against poor people rather than as an attempt to promote improved public health, though.

Bloomberg’s Folly

Although by many accounts he was considered to be an effective and even powerful mayor, Michael Bloomberg suffered one major defeat: his attempt to impose a hefty tax on sugary drinks was struck down in the courts. The tax would applied to movie theaters, restaurants and street trucks but not to the same drinks in grocery stores.

But don’t count Bloomberg’s tax out just yet. Recently-installed mayor Bill de Blasio is also in favor of taxing supersized soft drinks. In fact, top officials in the city placed an appeal to the court on June 4, 2012 to reconsider the ruling, insisting that the local Board of Health possesses the authority to impose legislation such as a ban on large sized sugary drinks. A ruling is not expected from the Court of Appeals before July 2014 – so those Fourth-of-July barbecues should be safe – this year.

A Model for Success?

A major factor in the downfall of Bloomberg’s decree was its inconsistency. A uniformly applied tax on all sugary drinks would not face the legal hurdle of attempting to justify why some establishments should be burdened by a ban or prohibition while others were not. Likewise, for such a tax to work, it must be applied over a wide enough area so that it is impossible, or at least highly inconvenient, for individuals intent on beating the tax to simply cross a nearby border. An optimum model may be to combine the stick of a tax or prohibition on junk food with a carrot such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. This combats childhood obesity by reintroducing young people to the pleasures of activity and fresh air.

Want to learn more about sugar and obesity? Check out the new film “Fed Up,” a new movie targeting sugar in schools.