A BALCONY VIEW:

I was going to sugar-coat my opening stanza of this week's column. But I realized over sweetening things is a colossal problem today so I'll just say it: Americans are pretty fat compared to the rest of the world.

If that seems too harsh, I offer this consolation: Californians seem slightly healthier than the rest of the country. Anyone who's traveled east of Riverside knows what I'm talking about.

Now, I know what you're thinking. There he goes again, ignoring local events. Not so. I noticed the sprinklers watering the sidewalk on Honolulu Avenue this week. But for now, obesity is something that needs addressing — if not for our own personal well-being, than for the general welfare of our country.

Last year, I went to Cape Coral, Fla., only to discover that KFC actually has all-you-can-eat versions of their restaurants — as if America really needs a no-limits fried chicken and mashed potato buffet.

It's exactly this kind of gluttony that has Senate leaders considering imposing taxes on soda and other sugary drinks to help pay for an overhaul of our health-care system.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the medical costs for obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion. That's 9.1% of U.S. health-care expenditures, with half these costs paid for publicly through Medicare and Medicaid.

President Obama was recently quoted as saying, “When it comes to health-care spending, we are on an unsustainable course that threatens the financial stability of families, businesses and government itself.”

With that much money being spent on a line item so preventable, it makes one wonder why we're debating health-care reform in Congress and not dietary reform at our dinner tables.

The report in the medical journal also states that revenue generated from a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would be considerable and could be used to help support childhood nutrition programs, obesity-prevention programs, health care for the uninsured or to help meet general revenue needs. A national tax of 1-cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages would raise $14.9 billion in the first year alone, according to the report.

Of course, the mere notion of profits getting thinner certainly got the attention of Coke and Pepsi. Their beverage lobby, the American Beverage Assn., said such a tax would unfairly hit lower-income Americans and wouldn't deter consumption. Funny, that is similar to what the tobacco industry said about the tax on cigarettes. But contrary to their complaining, higher cigarette costs have altered spending habits.

The lobbyists also formed a coalition to oppose taxes called, Americans Against Food Taxes. The group is running an ad that shows a family enjoying soda on a camping trip. “This is no time for Congress to be adding taxes on the simple pleasures we all enjoy,” the ad says.

I guess they're right. Just because we're paying billions to fight obesity doesn't mean it's time to panic. That time will come when our bloated bodies will literally explode when we hug one another. And the simple pleasures they refer to? Probably diabetes and heart disease. If we don't want to pay a small tax on the junk we consume, maybe we should invest a few minutes in front of a full-length mirror. That way we can look at ourselves honestly and ask if Congress should step in or step back.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm all for personal freedom. You want to drink 64 ounces of soda per day? Go for it. Just don't expect me to absorb the costs of your quadruple bypass surgery in my health insurance premium.

Personally, I think we need government protection from companies that know they can reap huge profits from our weakness for sugary beverages. Because they're using those profits and hiring lobbyists like the American Beverage Assn. to convince us that consuming mass quantities of soda is as satisfying as a family outing.

Then again, after looking around, it's easy to see why they'd think that.


?GARY HUERTA is a Crescenta Valley resident and author. He is Senior Manager of Communications for DIRECTV and a copywriting professor at Pasadena Art Center College of Design. Gary may be reached at garyrhuerta@gmail.com.

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