Soda Tax Would Have Little Impact on Weight Loss, Study Finds

Soda Tax Would Have Little Impact on Weight Loss
A Coca-Cola Co. Freestyle beverage dispenser is demonstrated at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in the U.S. would generate billions of dollars in federal revenue and have little impact on weight loss, a study found.

Imposing a 40 percent tax on soda and non-carbonated drinks would raise $2.5 billion a year and translate to an average annual weight loss of 1.3 pounds per person, researchers wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine yesterday. The impact would be greatest among middle-income earners and make less difference to the richest and poorest, the study found.

Politicians including New York Governor David Paterson have proposed cutting food aid or taxing sugared beverages to fight obesity and reduce U.S. budget deficits. While the study showed the effect of a so-called soda tax on weight loss is small, it should still be considered because the money raised could also be used for anti-obesity measures, said Eric Finkelstein, an associate professor of health services who led the study at the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School.

“Any strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered,” Finkelstein said in a statement.

Almost 27 percent of American adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consuming a single soft drink a day, diet or regular, may contribute to an array of obesity-linked health conditions that can hurt the heart and lead to diabetes, according to a 2007 study in the American Heart Association’s medical journal Circulation.

Computer Model

Finkelstein and colleagues used data from a 2006 survey of households that tracked their store-bought food and beverage purchases for a year, then developed a computer model to simulate the effect of taxes on weight loss.

Taxing all sugar-sweetened beverages would be more effective than only taxing soda drinks because it makes it more difficult for consumers to substitute similar products to avoid the price increase, the researchers wrote.

The tax would have the least effect on both the richest 25 percent of U.S. households because they could afford it, and on the poorest 25 percent because they would get around the tax by buying generic versions, purchasing in bulk or waiting for a discount sale, the study found.

Removing a U.S. subsidy to farmers that reduces the price of high fructose corn syrup, the main ingredient in sugar-sweetened beverages, would be more effective at containing obesity rates than taxing drinks, Finkelstein said.

The research was funded by Healthy Eating Research, a program of the Princeton, New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Tax Suggestion

Taxing soda drinks was suggested last month by the Debt Reduction Task Force of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a non- profit organization established in 2007 by a group of former Senate Majority leaders.

The task force recommends the tax on all non-alcoholic beverages with added calorie-dense sweeteners. The tax would apply to sports drinks such as Gatorade, a PepsiCo Inc. product, as well as energy drinks and fruit-flavored beverages if they included added sugars or corn syrup.

The excise tax would take effect in 2012 and raise $156 billion through 2020, according to the task force. That equates to 21 percent of the $756 billion in savings for federal health-care spending under the task force’s proposal.

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