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Lindsey Sloan Peterson: A bittersweet tax

The obesity epidemic has been in the media and is an issue that needs to continue to be addressed because it has a domino effect on so many areas of Americans’ lives from the cost of health insurance to the cost of life.

Most recently in the line of fire is the issue of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) or more well-known as the “soda tax.” In June 2012, New York City began restricting the size of soda in the city, which brought on a plan for implementation of a tax on SSBs.

I recall as a child considering it a treat to drink a pop (or soda, or Coke, or soda pop, depending on where you live). The house rule was everyone was allowed one soda on “T” days —

Tuesdays, Thursdays, and SaTurdays. Now, as a registered nurse working with people of all ages, upon admission to the hospital I ask them to describe their caffeine intake. Many mention a cup of coffee in the morning, but most mention drinking one, two or three SSBs per day.

Intake of SSBs “…is associated with higher body weight, poor nutrition, displacement of more healthful beverages, obesity and diabetes. It is estimated that daily SSB intake increases an individual’s risk of diabetes by 32 percent” according to the American Heart Association. Among the adverse risks listed by the American Heart Association, daily caloric intake of SSBs among children and adolescents is between 10 and 15 percent. And not only that, it is concerning that there has been a steady increase over the past few decades.

The obesity epidemic and consumption of SSBs paints a clear picture that is one piece to the puzzle moving our country in the right direction, a healthy direction. According to an analysis by seven public health experts in The New England Journal of Medicine (2009), “Adding a penny per ounce tax to sugar-sweetened beverages could slow the growth of obesity in the U.S. and raise billions of dollars for obesity prevention and other health programs.” An article in The Nutrition Source published in the Harvard School of Public Health (2012) also elaborates: “Overweight- and obesity-related medical costs in the U.S. total an estimated $147 billion a year — nearly 10 percent of all health care spending — and sugary drinks are a major contributor to the nation’s obesity epidemic.”

A perfect example to support this tax is that of the taxes on tobacco products.

Twenty years ago, cigarettes, which have been proven to cause lung and other types of cancer, were taxed at a low rate, but cigarette taxes have tripled since the 1980s. This huge tax increase, which pushed the cost of cigarettes higher by an average of 160 percent, is credited for the declines in the prevalence of adult smokers and tobacco-related diseases.

The Obesity Report (2010) expands on the idea that an excise tax versus a sales tax would be more effective because the consumer is able to see the increased price in the aisle versus at the register. “Advocates claim that a penny-per-ounce excise tax could reduce SSB consumption by more than 10 percent,” according to Brownell & Frieden, 2009 (as cited in the Obesity Report, 2010).

Overall, minimal costs are involved in implementing a national excise tax on SSBs.

Little to lose and a lot to gain is the ever-present concept in regard to this issue. Supporting this additional revenue to fund health issues caused by SSBs, I predict, will result in a trickle-down effect. More funding will be available to educate the people on the adverse effects of obesity and making healthier lifestyle choices, environmental improvements in inner cities could benefit by providing various options for healthier choices (such as fresh produce and parks), health insurance costs may decrease, and the prevalence of depression may decline.

It’s important to acknowledge that this one simple but important change will not reap all of these great benefits. However, it will put us in a position as a nation to continue to move in the right direction as a whole.

Lindsey Sloan Peterson, a registered nurse from Grand Forks, N.D. is originally from the Bemidji area. She is pursuing a master’s degree in nursing at the University of North Dakota.