Red Bulls, Vitamin Waters and Starbucks Doubleshots are but a few of the tools most Elis will rely on in the weeks leading up to finals. But according to psychology professor Kelly Brownell, the drinks many students view as absolute necessities are often detrimental to public health, and should be subject to special taxation.
Brownell, who also serves as director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, argues in favor of a penny-per-ounce tax on sugared drinks in an opinion piece entitled “Ounces of Prevention — The Public Policy Case for Taxes on Sugared Beverages,” published in last week’s online edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. The op-ed is based on the results of a study the Rudd Center conducted in 2007, which suggest increased soft drink consumption correlates with obesity and poor nutrition.
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Co-written with Thomas Frieden, the health commissioner for the city of New York, “Ounces of Prevention” attempts to prove a link — contested by the beverage industry — between increased weight and sugared drink consumption. The two write that Americans currently consume 250 to 300 more calories per day than in decades past — and are gaining weight because of it.
The authors attribute this jump to the consumption of sugared drinks, a category which includes any beverage made with a caloric sweetener like energy drinks, sports drinks and non-diet soft drinks. In taxing sugared drinks, Brownell and Frieden say, states have a chance to curb the obesity epidemic and earn much-needed revenue.
Dr. Melinda Irwin, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health and obesity and cancer researcher who strongly supports the tax, said in an e-mail message Tuesday that obesity reduction demands “novel interventions.”
“Upstream approaches, such as [those at the] structural, environmental and policy levels are necessary,” Irwin said. “Taxing soft drinks is one such intervention.”
In late 2008, New York Gov. David Paterson proposed a tax much like the one Brownell and Frieden are suggesting. The 18 percent tax on sweetened drinks, which many media outlets referred to as an “obesity tax,” was ultimately scrapped. Though Paterson’s estimated that the tax could return $400 million in revenue, he withdrew it from consideration in March 2009 after receiving federal stimulus money.
Many fiscal conservatives described Paterson’s tax as an undue burden imposed on the American family by a “nanny state.” Some public health figures hailed the proposal as a way for states to raise money to pay for the health care record numbers of obese individuals are seeking, and to prevent the obesity epidemic from spreading any further.
Within the beverage industry, however, response to a sweetened beverage tax has been less than enthusiastic.
Tracey Halliday, American Beverage Association’s director of communications, described the tax as “regressive” and said it could potentially harm lower-income American families.
“Hardworking American families are already struggling to pay bills and buy groceries,” Halliday said in an e-mail Tuesday. “A tax such as the one suggested by Kelly Brownell [and Frieden] would do nothing but further increase their burden.”
Not so, Brownell retorted in an e-mail Tuesday.
“Any regressive nature of the tax could be offset if the revenue is used to fund programs that would help the poor,” Brownell said, referring to the article’s suggestions that revenue from the tax be used to fund health and nutrition initiatives and to stimulate industries which suffer due to the reduced consumption of sugared beverages.
Still, Halliday argued that the correlation between soft drink consumption and obesity is unfounded.
“Soft drinks are not the cause of obesity. If you eat or drink too much of anything without burning those calories off, you will gain weight,” Halliday said, citing the results of a recent study that found that weight-loss diets were successful regardless of the source of the calories consumed.
But Brownell dismissed this claim, saying his proposed tax is not designed to help people lose weight, but rather to prevent diet-related diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes.
The tax would not merely discourage the already obese from consuming sugared drinks, however. Michael Lavigne ’09, a psychology major who said he is interested in Brownell’s op-ed , said the tax would give many people pause before purchasing such a beverage.
“The fiscal burden would be powerful, but I think it would also make consumers consider why it was taxed in the first place,” Lavigne said.
When asked if he supported the tax, Lavigne was reluctant to answer.
“I suppose so,” Lavigne said, “but maybe only because I never drink soda.”
Brownell said that the Rudd Center will continue researching policy options related to the prevention of diet-related diseases in coming months.