The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 8th

Soda tax: A solution to a big problem

Thanksgiving. It’s a time to celebrate the day our ancestors made peace with the American Indians. So how do we celebrate it? Like we celebrate any other national holiday — with a huge meal.

Beyond our nation’s borders, we are known as a country of fatties. When I was studying abroad in Argentina last fall, my host family thought they knew the answer to why so many Americans are fat — they eat too much peanut butter.

My host family may have been on the right track, since processed foods and beverages high in fat, like peanut butter, are so much cheaper than fresh produce. Eating or drinking large quantities of processed foods and beverages is one of the major causes of our nation’s obesity epidemic.

To find out about solutions to the obesity epidemic, I interviewed UNC distinguished professor Barry Popkin, who published a book in 2009 about obesity entitled “The World is Fat”.

In his book, Popkin makes a case for a “fat tax,” which would tax foods and beverages with high fat contents, discouraging consumers from purchasing them. He argues that taxing cigarettes and alcohol has lowered their consumption rates, and this strategy could work just as well to lower the consumption of fatty foods and beverages.

Popkin suggests the effort to tax fattening foods should be focused on sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas and energy drinks, since there is a disconnect between what we drink and what we eat.

In other words, when we drink a high-fat beverage, we don’t feel full, so we eat a high-calorie meal to go with it. Thus, if high fat beverages were to be cut out of a person’s diet and replaced with low-calorie beverages such as water, their fat intake would be greatly reduced.

There is a consensus among scholars in the diabetes, nutrition, heart and cancer sectors that reducing a person’s intake of sugar-sweetened beverages would reduce their calorie intake, lowering their risk of diabetes and heart disease. In a cash-strapped economy, like ours, consumers are especially cost-conscious. Thus, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be an effective way to reduce their consumption.

The major opposition for these findings is coming from — you guessed it — the companies that produce these beverages, like Pepsi and Coke, since higher prices would be bad for business.

But this week, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit organization founded by former Senate majority leaders, came out with a deficit reduction plan that favors a soda tax.

The report estimates that the tax would raise more than $15 billion by 2015, plus the money it would save hospitals on obesity-related medical bills, such as treatments for diabetes and heart disease.

Ultimately, preventing and treating obesity will require a combination of better nutrition education and a soda tax (hey, at least it’s not a peanut butter tax!)

Sarah Dugan is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior environmental health policy major from Asheville, NC. Contact her at sdugan@email.unc.edu.

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