Subsidizing soda is not so sweet

By Richard F. Daines

Sixty percent of New York adults and one third of children are overweight or obese. We eat 300 calories more a day now than we did 30 years ago, with most extra calories coming from sugar-sweetened sodas, energy or fruit-flavored drinks.

As a physician, I’ve had to tell more patients that they have diabetes. As a scoutmaster I’ve watched a kid chug a sports drink so full of sugar that he’d have to hike an hour a day to burn off the calories. In restaurants I’ve seen people buying “big gulps” because they’re cheap and big. They are also loaded with sugar and calories.

As your state health commissioner, every New Yorker is my patient. I say “Enough! It is time to stop the soft drink insanity.” Health professionals across the state are joining me to support a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages as part of a multi-faceted strategy to fight obesity.

The low price of soft drinks is a direct result of government subsidies for corn syrup and sugar. A New England Journal of Medicine study demonstrated that over the past 30 years, the cost of soft drinks has risen at only three-quarters of the rate of general inflation while the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen at more than 1.5 times that of the Consumer Price Index. While the price for healthy choices keep going up, the cost of bad choices keeps going down.

The soft drink industry spends millions to promote soda sales. McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC make it easier, and cheaper, to buy meals with large fries and gigantic sodas. Low-fat milk costs more than soda so grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods stock more soda and less milk. There’s no profit in persuading Americans to drink or eat less of something that is cheap, heavily marketed, and tastes so good.

New York taxpayers spend about $7.6 billion annually to treat obesity-related illnesses. Much of the money is spent on Medicaid and Medicare. You don’t see these costs at a vending machine or takeout counter but we all pay for it, whether you buy a soda or not.

Government’s role is to serve the public good when private markets fail, which is why government levies taxes to pay for police and fire protection, and to decrease cigarette use.

It is time for government and the public to standup to the special interests, to protect our children, and to show that New York can implement innovative public policy and offer a healthier choice. Recent polls of New Yorkers shows substantial support for a penny per ounce tax on non-diet soft drinks if the money is used to close budget deficits or support health care.

Another study in The New England Journal of Medicine followed thousands of children through adulthood – and discovered that the heaviest youngsters were more than twice as likely as the thinnest to die before age 55. Makes you want to pop open a can of soda and pour it down the kitchen drain.

Dr. Richard F. Daines is the New York State Commissioner of Health.