Despite the best efforts of the soda industry to keep a lid on any discussion of a soda tax, the concept keeps bubbling up. It rose to the surface again last month when State Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez introduced soda tax legislation for California.
In bold defiance of the multimillion-dollar beverage lobby, Florez stepped forward to begin fixing California’s childhood obesity crisis. His legislation, which would levy a penny for each added teaspoon of sugar on the soda industry, would raise $1.5 million annually to mitigate the problems soda has dumped on the state. Funds from the excise tax would be funneled to cities and schools to pay for childhood obesity prevention and other children’s health programs.
Naturally, Florez isn’t making any friends among the soda giants — an industry that spends millions to deflect any blame for the obesity crisis.
But while soda lobbyists and P.R. flacks have been fast at work protecting Big Soda’s billion-dollar profits, hard science has a nagging tendency to rise above the spin. Last year, a study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research found that adults in California who drank a soda or more a day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese. And make no mistake about it, Americans drink a lot of soda — gulping down 50 gallons a year each and adding 39 pounds of unneeded sugar to their diet. Even young kids are chugging away, with 41 percent of California children under the age of 11 drinking a soda or more a day.
Research has shown that unlike with solid foods, we are not satiated by the calories we drink. A 20-ounce soda has 17 teaspoons of sugar. What’s more, during the 30 years that the obesity crisis has taken root in America, more than 40 percent of new calories in our diet have come from sugar-sweetened beverages.
Of course, Big Soda prefers that we ignore the science (while it pays for its own) and slip into blissful jingle-dazed ignorance, with a “Coke and a smile.” Their aggressive marketing campaigns continue to build on the sense of joy, humor and happiness that belies the central role they play in perpetuating the obesity crisis.
In California alone, obesity carries an annual price tag of $41 billion. It’s difficult to hold on to that happy feeling when you know that as a direct result of the obesity epidemic, one-third of the children born in 2000 are likely to have diabetes sometime in their lives, and that this could be the first generation of children in modern history to have shorter lives than their parents.
Pepsi, Coke and their brethren act indignant when any of the blame for this crisis is laid at their doorstep. They defend themselves by increasing their giveaways to community programs, buying full-page ads that celebrate their hypocritical call for moderate consumption and spending $500 million a year to market to our kids. No other food category in the nation so aggressively markets to children, and yet the soda giants continue to tell us they are champions for health.
The obesity epidemic is complex. On that point we all agree. However, if we’re going to make any headway in addressing this health crisis, we have to start with the biggest culprit, and that’s soda. Florez’s penny-a-teaspoon tax on the soda industry will begin correcting the overflowing problems that soda has created.
Harold Goldstein is the executive director of the Davis-based California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which works to change public policy to address the factors that perpetuate the obesity epidemic. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
By Harold Goldstein
Special to the Mercury News