A healthy tax plan

Why not add sugary drinks to the list of 'sins?'

Americans are consuming far too many sugary drinks that contribute to rising obesity and diabetes rates. The latest weapon in the public health arsenal to combat the problem — taxing them — deserves more serious consideration in Maryland.

Earlier this month, voters in five cities approved special taxes on sugary drinks — a category that includes not just the usual carbonated suspects such as Coke and Pepsi but also certain sports beverages and bottled teas. That brings to at least seven the number of U.S. municipalities with some form of per-ounce tax on sweetened drinks.

It's not just a matter of revenue for cash-strapped local governments but an effort to fundamentally change consumer behavior. As economists often point out, the more a product is taxed, the less of it is consumed. And the tax on sugary beverages is a classic example of a "sin tax," much like taxes applied to tobacco, alcohol and gambling.

And that's not just smoke and mirrors. Tobacco taxes are a case study in how to discourage young people from acquiring a potentially deadly habit. And there's no better way to judge that success than to look at tobacco tax revenue on a national scale — despite significant boosts in tax rates, tobacco-related tax collections fell from $17.3 billion in 2011 to $16.9 billion in 2014, according to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

Over the past decade, the number of cigarettes sold each year in this country has been in a consistent decline. High taxes may not be the only reason for that trend — public education campaigns (fueled by tobacco tax revenue) have played a role as well.

High-sugar drinks deserve a similar fate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists sugary drinks as a leading source of sugar in the American diet, and they are associated with a higher prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, cavities, gout and a type of arthritis. One recent study suggests teens in the United Kingdom consume the equivalent of a bathtub full of sugar from sugary drinks each year.

Health advocates in Howard County have been particularly vigilant on this topic, and four years ago the county passed restrictions on sales of sugary drinks and certain high-calorie snack foods on county property. That ban was subsequently revoked by County Executive Allan Kittleman, but the message stuck — a new study found sales of soda at 15 county grocery stores have dropped by nearly one-fifth, which is far greater than the 1 or 2 percent decline in soda sales reported nationwide.

Still, public education only gets you so far. Tobacco was identified as a public health threat more than a half-century ago, but it took two generations-worth of public health campaigns — and a tobacco tax — to truly turn the tide.

One can, of course, make a distinction between tobacco products and sugary drinks, as the former is unhealthful in any quantity and the latter can be consumed safely by most people in small quantities. The problem is that Americans aren't consuming sugary drinks in small quantities, and the result is that two out of three adults are considered obese and the nation has a $190 billion-a-year-in-health-care-costs obesity epidemic.

Even with a growing interest in a drink tax, the fight is going to be tough. U.S. beverage companies spend about $3.2 billion each year to market their drinks and, unlike big tobacco products, they can place ads for them wherever they like, from youth sports venues to kids cartoons, a Harvard study notes. The result? More kids drink sugary drinks and in larger quantity — with teens now getting more calories from them than they do from any other source, including pizza.

Oakland, San Francisco and Albany in California and Boulder, Colo., join Philadelphia and Berkeley in applying a sugary drink tax. The only question is whether the relatively small taxes — at most, they may increase prices by 10 percent — will be enough to discourage consumption. Big soda companies are obviously worried and have been looking to reduce calorie counts on some products. So much the better. Reducing sugary drink consumption alone won't cure the nation's obesity crisis, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.

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