Taxing sugary drinks will not help fight obesity, research suggests

In an effort to fight the growing obesity epidemic, many cities and states are weighing the pros and cons of raising taxes on things like soft drinks or junk food.

Yet, a new study from researchers at Duke University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that taxing soda will not help reduce obesity rates in the long run – mostly because consumers are able to buy alternative sugary drinks or high-calorie snacks easily in place of soft drinks. Unlike taxes on cigarettes, a soda tax will not necessarily prevent the consumption of something unhealthy, researchers point out in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

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Appealing, but not effective?

The research team found that a half-cent per ounce increase on sugar-sweetened beverages, which adds up to about 10 cents a bottle, could help reduce total calorie consumption of 23 foods and beverages examined in the study.

But they also found that a tax on sugary drinks would make consumers more likely to up their caloric count by eating more salt, fat and sugar in other foods.

"Instituting a sugary beverage tax may be an appealing public policy option to curb obesity, but it's not as easy to use taxes to curb obesity as it is with smoking," said Chen Zhen, Ph.D., a research economist at RTI and the paper's lead author.

Purchase behavior

The study also looked at the purchasing behavior differences between high- and low-income families. Food and beverages bought by low-income families tend to be higher in calories, fat and sodium, the research found, which means these people would benefit most from cutting sugary drinks out of their diets.

"However, they would also pay more in beverage taxes, making it a regressive tax," Zhen said.

Current obesity rates in the United States are at about 36 percent for adults and 17 percent for children, the study stated. Medical costs associated with obesity – which is now classified as a disease by the American Medical Association – are estimated to be about $147 billion or more per year.

Source: RTI International

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