Are Taxes the Solution to the Obesity Crisis?

Soda at grocery store
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The excess consumption of added sugars has been identified as one of the major causes of the obesity epidemic. One method that has been proposed to reduce this consumption is through the use of a “sugar tax.”

So what is a “sugar tax,” and does it actually work to reduce obesity rates?

Recommendations on Added Sugar Intake

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that the intake of added sugar not exceed 6 teaspoons (approximately 24g) daily for women and 9 teaspoons (approximately 36g) daily for men.

Meanwhile, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average 12-ounce can of cola contains over 8 teaspoons of sugar. So, by drinking just one small soft drink, a woman would have already far exceeded her recommended daily sugar maximum, and a man would have nearly reached his. With numbers like this, it is easy to see how the average American can consume 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, far beyond the AHA’s recommended maximum. And, extrapolating from that, it is even easier to see how this level of high-calorie sugared intake could contribute to the rise of the obesity epidemic over the course of time.

The Rise of the Sugar Tax

Several U.S. cities have proposed—and some have now successfully passed—a tax on added sugar consumption, usually in the form of a tax on sugared beverages.

For example, New York City famously proposed a tax on sugared beverages under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and in 2016, the Philadelphia City Council passed a tax on sweetened beverages.

Additionally, other countries have levied taxes on sugared beverages. In Mexico, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages led to a drop in sales of these beverages. A similar effect was seen when France introduced a tax on sweetened beverages (including those with artificial sweeteners) in 2012.

Norway has a general sugar tax on all products containing refined added sugars, including sugary drinks.

And South Africa has plans for a sugar tax in its budget for 2017, making it the first African country to do so.

Impact of the Berkeley Tax

In an article released in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2016, Falbe and colleagues analyzed what impact, if any, the Berkeley excise tax had had on the consumption of sugared beverages.

As the authors note, in March 2015 Berkeley, Calif., became the first U.S. jurisdiction to implement such a tax, at $0.01 per ounce of sugared beverage. Thus, they were able to look at changes in pre- and post-tax beverage consumption, and they chose to look in particular at low-income neighborhoods in Berkeley versus the cities of San Francisco and Oakland.

These researchers found that consumption of sugared beverages decreased by 21 percent in Berkeley, while increasing by 4 percent in San Francisco and Oakland. In addition, consumption of water increased by 63 percent in Berkeley, as compared to an increase of just 19 percent in the other cities.

This short-term study shows that, in low-income neighborhoods at least, consumption of sugared beverages can be reduced by the implementation of an excise tax.

Whether or not this will have a sustainable, long-term effect on rates of diabetes and obesity remains to be seen.

Supported by the World Health Organization

In October 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) came out in support of a sugar tax on soft drinks.

The WHO had previously released a guideline in 2015 that recommended that “adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of their total energy intake.” This went on to state that “a further reduction to below 5 percent or roughly 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day would provide additional health benefits.”

Further, in a WHO report entitled “Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs),” the WHO stated that “taxing sugary drinks can lower consumption and reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay.”

The WHO also noted in this report that “fiscal policies that lead to at least a 20 percent increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products.”

The WHO again noted the link between consumption of added sugars and the global obesity and diabetes epidemics, which in many cases are two sides of the same coin.

Where the Added Sugars Are Hiding

Figuring out where the added sugars are can sometimes be tricky, because you have to know what to look for on an ingredients label. But knowing this information is critical to helping you eliminate added sugars from your diet.

First of all, you should keep in mind that the term “added sugar” refers to and includes all sugars that are added to food, rather than those that occur naturally.

Because food manufacturers have found many different methods and sources by which to add sugar to foods ranging from ketchup to cereal to soft drinks, it can be difficult to identify added sugar in the ingredients lists on food labels.

When looking for added sugars in any product that you buy—food or beverage—in addition to any term containing the word “sugar,” look for the following: any ingredient ending in “-ose” (such as maltose, dextrose, sucrose, fructose, lactose), as well as high fructose corn syrup, molasses, honey, corn sweetener, evaporated cane juice, syrup, and fruit juice concentrates.

Most Common Sources of Added Sugar

While sugared beverages seem to lead the charge just in the sheer volume of added sugar that can be found in a single serving, there are other common sources of which to be aware.

According to the American Heart Association, major sources of added sugars in our diets are soft drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and milk products (such as ice cream and sweetened yogurt), and cereals. Most sweetened beverages and fruit drinks contain so much added sugar, in fact, that they have been referred to as “liquid sugar” by some experts.

The cereal aisle, for example, has become notorious for the amount of added sugar that can be found in the products there. It is not uncommon to find cereals from well-known brands that contain added sugar as their single largest ingredient, making up 50 percent or more of the contents of the cereal box.

Also, don’t forget the perils of energy drinks, many of which contain 20 or more teaspoons of sugar, which is a tremendous amount, especially when one considers the AHA’s recommendation that adult women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and no more than 9 teaspoons for adult men. And this is in addition to the cardiovascular dangers posed by energy drinks, including raising blood pressure and heart rate.

Making Water Your Primary Beverage

Given all the above, there is a lot to be said for making water your go-to beverage. Black coffee and unsweetened tea (note the “unsweetened” part there, which is key) are also OK and have their own health benefits.

Not only does water have zero calories, but it also has many health benefits, ranging from helping with weight loss to reducing fatigue and preventing kidney stones. So the next time you reach for a beverage, give that humble drink of water a chance. Your body will thank you for it.

Sources:

Falbe J, Thompson HR, Becker CM, Rojas N, McCulloch CE, Madsen KA. Impact of the Berkeley excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. American Journal of Public Health. 2016;106:1865-1871.

Johnson R et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2009.

World Health Organization. Fiscal policies for diet and prevention of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Report. 2016.

World Health Organization. Sugars intake for adults and children. Guideline. 2015.

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