TN medical students want soda tax to fight childhood obesity

6:22 AM, Apr 9, 2010   |    comments
Porcelain Vaughn grabs a bottle of Coke Zero at CB Foods on Shelby Avenue in Nashville on Wednesday./The Tennessean
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By Christina E. Sanchez, The Tennessean

Soda makers pay a penny per half-liter in West Virginia to sell pop, and dental, medical and nursing schools get a funding boost. In Arkansas they pay about 2 cents per gallon and the money goes to help the state health insurance program.

Medical students in Tennessee want the tax here to tackle a different problem: the childhood obesity epidemic. About 36 percent of the state's children are obese or overweight.

Soda manufacturers and bottlers already dish out a 1.9 percent tax on gross receipts from soft drinks and malt beverage. A portion of the money, about $5 million, has been used for litter cleanup and prevention in the state's 95 counties since the early 1980s.

But the students want counties also to be able to use the money, if they choose, to create athletic fields, parks and greenways. The increased recreational opportunities, they said, should be part of dealing with the childhood obesity epidemic. No new or added taxes would be created. 

The bill is working its way through the state legislature.

"We would be totally naive if we thought that our bill would address the magnitude of obesity in the state of Tennessee, but there is evidence that access to recreation increases physical activity," said David Marcovitz, a second-year medical student at Vanderbilt University who spoke to state lawmakers Wednesday. "This would be a very small step. Our hope is also to raise awareness about the link between obesity and sugar-sweetened beverages."

The Beverage Association of Tennessee, which represents the soda industry, disagrees with the proposal and says the money should not be diverted from litter control toward "a back-door funding" solution for health problems.

"We are either in the business of raising tax money to deal with litter or we are going to be in the business of taxing our industry to deal with some health issue," said beverage association representative Raymond Thomasson, who expressed his opposition before a state Senate committee hearing on Tuesday. "It's unique. I just don't support it. If we're going to deal with obesity, let's do it straight up."

Soda linked to obesity
Research has shown a link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, and a study from the University of California, Los Angeles revealed that people are more likely to be obese if they drink those beverages.

The UCLA study, "Bubbling Over," found that adults who drink soda are 27 percent more likely to be obese than those who don't. It also revealed that 41 percent of children drank at least one sugar-sweetened drink or soda a day.

And while people consume on average 278 more calories per day than people did 30 years ago, they are less active, the researchers said.

The evidence from research is driving many states and large cities to call for a "junk food tax" on items such as soda or pizza to increase the price and deter people from eating unhealthy food. New York City, for example, wants to implement a penny-per-ounce tax on soda. So a typical bottle of soda, about 20 ounces, would carry a 20-cent tax.

The Tennessee medical students' measure would not raise or add taxes, but use existing funds.

"This doesn't make anybody do anything, but it gives communities opportunities to apply for grants," said state Rep. Mike Stewart, the Nashville Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Beverly Marrero, a Memphis Democrat. "It is time companies that create these products not be permitted to outsource the cost of the problem to the public without picking up their fair share."

Tennessee spends about $1.5 billion a year on obesity-related health problems.

State health commissioner Susan Cooper said there are many indirect costs to the obesity problem. Diabetes, heart disease and an unhealthy work force are a few.

The causes are plentiful: more fast-food restaurants, children who don't walk to school and advertising that glorifies unhealthful foods. Overall life is more sedentary.

"We can no longer let this silent epidemic continue," she said. "We need to come together as a state and stop it, and stop it now."

State programs already are making a dent. Rules about school nutrition have become stricter, vending machines have been taken out of schools, physical education is mandatory for 90 minutes a week and the state tracks weight data on children.

"Socially and culturally, obesity is the last topic that anyone wants to talk about, but if you don't talk about it, nothing is going to change," Cooper said.

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