By Jane McGrath, M.D.

You may hear a lot of talk about taxing soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages. A new tax never sounds like a good idea, but this one is well worth considering. The proposal would add an excise tax of 1 cent per fluid ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages. The tax would be levied on the manufacturers and would show up as a small price increase on the drinks on the supermarket shelf.

I don’t think anyone needs reminding that we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic in New Mexico, as well as in much of the rest of the world. Obesity is a complex problem with multiple causes that result in very high medical costs—which is unsurprising given that complications from obesity include diabetes, heart disease, liver failure, sleep apnea and orthopedic problems. In fact, we spend an estimated $147 billion dollars nationally each year on obesity-related medical costs, half of which are paid with taxpayer dollars through Medicaid and Medicare. Strategies such as an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages will help decrease obesity rates and save taxpayer money by reducing medical costs.

Fixing the problem of obesity will involve many different kinds of strategies—much as we are doing with smoking. We have anti-smoking public information campaigns; taxes on cigarettes; age restrictions on buying cigarettes; and policies that restrict smoking in many public places, including the workplace. It takes this kind of multi-pronged approach to make an impact. So a targeted tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is part of how we can begin to deal with obesity from a legislative perspective.

Soda/soft drinks are considered “sugar-sweetened beverages,” which are defined by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University as beverages sweetened with naturally derived caloric sweeteners such as sucrose (table sugar), high fructose corn syrup or fruit juice concentrates. The beverages include soda, sports drinks, sweet teas and coffees, flavored waters, energy drinks and the syrup used to make such drinks in soda dispensing machines.

Sugar-sweetened beverages have been shown in multiple independent studies to add significantly to the risk of obesity. (Studies funded by the beverage industry have not demonstrated a correlation.) This happens in part because, unlike solid food, liquid calories are not satiating so you don’t adjust your caloric intake at your next meal the way you might if you had, say, a large cookie before dinner instead of a soda.

The benefits of an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages are pretty compelling. New Mexicans drink an estimated almost 75 million gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages a year. At that level of consumption, the proposed 1 cent per fluid ounce tax would add $95 million a year to the state’s coffers, reducing our projected state budget deficit by 20 percent.

Increasing the cost of a product on the shelf directly affects consumers and changes their behavior: They buy less. Some people say that such a tax is regressive and disproportionately affects children and the poor—and that is true. But it’s also true that obesity disproportionately affects children and the poor. Changing our behavior so that we drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages will make us all healthier.
McGrath is a pediatrician based in Albuquerque.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the New Mexico Editorial Forum. 2/10