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CDC Chief: Soda Tax Could Combat Obesity

While Democrats await the results of bipartisan negotiations over health care reform in the Senate Finance Committee, one of the proposals put before the committee received a nod of approval from health officials today: taxing soda.

The committee -- the last congressional panel expected to produce its own recommendations for health care reform -- listened to arguments earlier this year both for and against imposing a three-cent tax on sodas as well as other sugary drinks, including energy and sports drinks like Gatorade.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that a three-cent tax would generate $24 billion over the next four years, and proponents of the tax argued before the committee that it would lower consumption of sugary drinks and improve Americans' overall health.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Weight of the Nation" conference today, CDC chief Dr. Thomas Freiden said increasing the price of unhealthy foods "would be effective" at combating the nation's obesity problem, reports CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder.

Freiden said he was not endorsing the tax as a member of the administration but was "just presenting the science," according to Ambinder. He also said policies that would reduce the cost of healthy foods would effectively bring down obesity rates.

Obesity-related health spending reaches $147 billion a year, double what it was nearly a decade ago, according to a study published Monday by the journal Health Affairs.

Given that evidence, the argument goes, a soda tax could plausibly pay for health care reform both by raising revenues and bringing down the medical expenses associated with obesity.

"It is extremely difficult in reality to make such a snapshot estimate of something so complicated as obesity," Ambinder notes. "This is one reason why researchers in the field tend to focus on suffering and disparities within populations, rather than aggregate cost."

Even though the growth rates of American obesity are leveling off overall, he points out, the rate is not slowing among African American women, Hispanics, Native Americans, or among poorer Americans.

Those opposed to the soda tax, however, are also emphasizing the impact it could have on poor Americans. The American Beverage Association, which strongly opposes the tax, told the Wall Street Journal the tax would hit poor Americans the hardest.

The association announced this month it has formed a coalition called Americans Against Food Taxes to oppose the soda tax, the Hill newspaper reported. Made up of 110 organizations opposed to raising taxes on food and beverages to pay for health reform, the group is running an advertisement that shows a family enjoying soda on a camping trip.

Given the current state of the economy, the ad says, "this is no time for Congress to be adding taxes on the simple pleasures we all enjoy."

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