By Glenn Ellis
George Curry Media Columnist
We all know, by now, that Berkeley, Calif. became the first city in the United States to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages – soda, sweetened teas, sugary juices, and energy drinks. Also, in 2014, Mexico’s congress passed a tax on sugary beverages that went into effect all over the country – effectively raising their prices by 10 percent – and an 8 percent sales tax on junk foods, including chips, cookies, candy, and ice cream.
What’s missing from these two examples of success for Soda Tax is that a) Mexico passed a national Soda tax, including junk foods such as chips, cookies, candy, and ice cream, and b) epidemiologists in California are already tracking the “leakage” – people going outside of Berkeley to buy their sugary beverages.
For reasons that I have yet to understand, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is following the failed attempt by his predecessor, Michael Nutter. Kenney is proposing a tax on soda, with no mention of any health benefits. Lost in translation in this entire debate is that this should not be about soda, it should be about sugar.
There’s no doubt that Americans are addicted to sugar. We consume an average of 150 pounds per person each year. For many of us, that means we eat the equivalent of our own weight in sugar every year.
The sugar industry is big: $100 billion per year. Every day, we live in the world sugar created. From 1600 to the 1800s, sugar drove the economies of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa and did more to reshape the world than any ruler, empire, or war had ever done. Sugar, or White Gold, as British colonists called it, was the engine of the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Americas, beginning in the early 16thcentury. Profit from the sugar trade was so significant that it may have even helped America achieve independence from Great Britain.
It’s unlikely that many of us in the United States ever think about sugar’s history while consuming many pounds of sugar per year. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes 156 pounds of added sugar per year. This is equivalent to five grocery store shelves loaded with 30 or so-one pound bags of sugar each. If you find that hard to believe, that’s probably because sugar is so ubiquitous in our diets that most of us have no idea how much we’re consuming. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) puts the amount at 27.5 teaspoons of sugar a day per capita, which translates to 440 calories – nearly one quarter of a typical 2,000 calorie a day diet.
The obesity epidemic – along with related diseases including cancer, dementia, heart disease and diabetes – has spread across every nation where sugar-based carbohydrates have come to dominate to the food economy.
If the sugar from each bottle could be crystallized, it would amount to 10 teaspoons. Put 10 teaspoons of sugar in the bottom of an empty coke bottle and look at it. Is that a lot? In a normal bloodstream, which is about 5 liters, approximately 2 teaspoons of glucose should be circulating at any one time. That means that one coke raises the blood sugar to five times its normal level, for at least four hours.
So, now the big question: Why just a tax on soda?
After all, in addition to the junk foods that Mexico taxes, unhealthy amounts of sugar is hidden in everything, from tomato sauce and salad dressing to crackers and bread.
We also must think hard and long when we reach the hasty conclusion that a soda tax will positively impact the health of, particularly, low-income people.
Even if a Soda Tax leads people to diet soda, that won’t necessarily make us healthier. According to a study done in 2005 by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio showed that rather than promoting weight loss, the use of diet drinks was a marker for increasing weight gain and obesity. Those who consumed diet soda were more likely to gain weight than those who consumed naturally sweetened soda.
Based on all of these various factors for consideration in the “Soda-Tax Wars,” the biggest question for me is why should we allow the conversation to be limited to the low-hanging fruits, the thing that low-income people have the greatest access to, yet the least amount of political voice or power?
Unfortunately, in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney said, “if the city council doesn’t approve the tax, there’s no other way to pay for expanded pre-K or revamped recreation centers. Plan B is going without those things.”
I agree with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake This year, the city would have collected $343.2 million with such a tax. “It’s a long-term issue that we can’t ignore. Doing nothing isn’t an option.” Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
DISCLAIMER: The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.)
Glenn Ellis, is a regular media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine.