A tax on sugary soft drinks could discourage consumption just enough to save 26,000 people from dying of strokes, heart attacks, or other obesity-related ills over the next decade, researchers reported on Tuesday.
The study, by teams at the University of California, San Francisco and Columbia University in New York City, is one of the first to make projections of health effects of such a tax--a controversial idea that many public-health officials support. Several studies show obesity rates in the United States have risen in almost direct proportion to consumption rates of sugar-sweetened drinks. Americans drink 13 billion gallons a year of these drinks, the researchers say--and two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese, with accompanying high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo of UCSF and colleagues started with economists' estimates that a penny-per-ounce tax on soft drinks--12 cents on an average can of soda--would reduce consumption by 10 percent to 15 percent over a decade.
“We found that the tax would reduce consumption of these beverages by 15 percent among adults ages 25–64,” they wrote in the journal Health Affairs.
“Over the period 2010–20, the tax was estimated to prevent (240,000 cases of diabetes a year), 95,000 coronary heart events, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 premature deaths, while avoiding more than $17 billion in medical costs,” the researchers added.
“In addition to generating approximately $13 billion in annual tax revenue, a modest tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could reduce the adverse health and cost burdens of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.”
When he was health commissioner for New York, Thomas Frieden (who now heads the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) promoted such a soda tax.
“Our hope is that these types of numbers are useful for policymakers to weigh decisions,” Bibbins-Domingo said.
Officials in New York proposed a tax on sugary soft drinks in 2009 but abandoned the idea. Maryland taxes sodas at a rate of 6 percent, but attempts to tax soft drinks in other states have failed. In 2006, the American Beverage Association, the American Heart Association, and the William J. Clinton Foundation made an agreement to replace the contents of soft-drink machines in schools with water, diet drinks, and other lower-calorie beverages. In 2010, they reported that the move had cut shipments of full-calorie soft drinks to schools by 95 percent.
The American Beverage Association was quick to attack the study. "This paper is nothing more than another attempt by researchers and their supporters who have long advocated discriminatory taxes on beverages to promote a beverage tax, which will have no impact on public health," the group, which represents the soft drink industry, said in a statement.
It pointed to studies showing a negligible effect. But the researchers say their estimates err on the side of caution.
"While there is some uncertainty as to what drinks people would choose instead of taxed beverages, our conclusion that a penny-per-ounce tax would reduce consumption by 15 percent is actually a conservative estimate," Claire Wang of Columbia said in a statement.
"Sugary soft drinks really are liquid candy, and their low purchase price hides the true costs of health problems associated with them," added Columbia’s Lee Goldman. "Our model estimates that a penny-per-ounce tax would substantially reduce obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among adults in the United States."