The American Medical Assn. voted Wednesday at its annual meeting to adopt a policy that recognizes soda taxes as one way to pay for antiobesity programs, and that says any such tax revenue should go to programs to treat obesity and related conditions.
“While there is no silver bullet that will alone reverse the meteoric rise of obesity, there are many things we can do to fight this epidemic and improve the health of our nation,” AMA board member Dr. Alexander Ding said in a statement. “Improved consumer education on the adverse health effects of excessive consumption of beverages containing added sweeteners should be a key part of any multifaceted campaign to combat obesity.”
In its statement, the AMA noted that studies have shown sugar-sweetened beverages to be “strongly and consistency associated with increased body weight and a number of health conditions like type 2 diabetes.” Sugar-sweetened beverages account for about 46% of Americans’ added sugar intake.
“Where taxes are implemented on sugar-sweetened beverages, using revenue for anti-obesity programs and educational campaigns explaining the adverse effects of excessive consumption of these beverages will help to reduce the consumption of these caloric beverages and improve public health,” Ding said.
The AMA is holding its annual meeting in Chicago this week. Proposals at previous AMA annual meetings about taxes on sugary beverages failed.
The American Beverage Assn., an industry group, issued a statement saying it supports efforts to reduce obesity, but funding such programs with a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks is “discriminatory” and “misguided.”
“The body of science proves, and real world evidence demonstrates, that taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages will not have a meaningful impact on obesity. History also shows that revenues from existing soda taxes are not being used to improve public health. Americans can't trust that new taxes would be used any differently,” the beverage group said in its statement.
Conversation about soda has heated up in the last several weeks. Among the voices has been that of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who proposed banning the sale of sodas bigger than 16 ounces at theaters, arenas and other spots starting next spring.
The public policy organization Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group dedicated to free-market healthcare reform, says the mayor’s heart is in the right place. But the idea is wrong-headed, just like Prohibition was, the group says.
“It reeks of nanny-statism and diverts attention away from the issue. Plainly speaking, it trivializes the problem. Prohibition doesn't work. How many times do we have to learn this lesson?” the group said in a statement.
CMPI’s president, Peter Pitts, a former associate commissioner of the federal Food and Drug Administration, said by phone that taxes are a better idea – if the money funds public education programs.
People need to take responsibility for their health, and the government needs to mount efforts to help them – “not just carrots but sticks,” Pitts said.
“It’s not about punishing the people who make the products. It’s about people who have choices not using those choices wisely,” he said.
Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is one of the more controversial proposals in the public debate. Opinions are sharply divided about whether taxes work.
The AMA’s Council on Science and Public Health recommended Wednesday’s vote, saying that current research models predict that a tax of a penny an ounce on sweetened drinks would lead to a 5% reduction in the prevalence of overweight and obesity and reduce medical costs by $17 billion over 10 years.
The report says such taxes alone are unlikely to have a significant effect on obesity and related conditions. But it says that a penny per ounce excise tax would be imposed on producers and wholesalers. Such a tax is estimated to reduce sugary drink consumption 10% to 25%, which one analysis cited in the report says could reduce premature death by 26,000 instances over 10 years, the report says.
Federal dietary guidelines advise people to drink water instead of sugary drinks and to limit added sugars to 100 calories or less for women, 150 for men. Twelve ounces of most sugary drinks contain 130 to 150 calories of added sugars, the report says.
Supporters of taxes on sweetened drinks cite the role of tobacco and alcohol taxes in reducing rates of smoking and alcohol consumption; opponents question whether sugary drinks should be singled out among contributors to obesity and whether taxes would work.
Efforts to discourage consumption of sugary drinks may result in increased consumption of diet beverages, which needs further study, the AMA council says.