Can the Government Make Us Eat Better?

More cities and states are passing proposals aimed at improving our diets, but not without controversy

Then came the Great Recession. Cash-strapped states began to see a soda tax as an easy way to make money. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, taxing each ounce of sugary beverages sold in the U.S. by one penny would raise $14.9 billion the first year. “The idea really picked up speed not because it is a good one, but because so many states are looking at budget shortfalls,” says Wilson of the Center for Consumer Freedom. Elected officials figured that even sodaholics would rather see the price of a two-liter bottle of the sweet stuff go from $1.35 to $1.85 than see schools close, police officers get laid off or parks fall into disrepair.

Predictably, the New York City health department suggested it first. Perhaps equally as predictably, executives at soda companies reacted with outrage. Muhtar Kent, the chief executive of Coca-Cola, called the notion “outrageous,” according to a report by Bloomberg News, and suggested it was un-American. “I have never seen it work where a government tells people what to eat and what to drink,” Mr. Kent said. “It if worked, the Soviet Union would still be around.”

In New York City, the measure stumbled. But 15 other municipalities and states are now considering the tax. If they are successful, the soda tax may well cause people to drink less of the carbonated sugar drinks. In a study conducted by scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues, reported in the March 2010 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that consumption of soda and pizza rose and fell in inverse proportion to its price. For example, a 10 percent increase in the price of soda was associated with a 7.12 percent decrease in calories consumed from it, while the same increase in the price of pizza led to an 11.5 percent drop.

Will drinking less soda actually help Americans lose weight? That’s less clear. What is clear though is that as long as Americans keep gaining weight, government’s efforts to encourage them to lose it are likely to continue—especially as health costs from obesity-related diseases continues to climb. According to researchers at Emory University, obesity will cost about $344 billion in medical-related expenses by 2018, eating up about 21 percent of healthcare spending. Many believe proposals like taxes on soda, better access to nutritional information, and efforts to reduce unhealthy ingredients in restaurant food can help cut those numbers.

"We've seen a breathtaking number of measures being adopted in a relatively short period of time," says Yale’s Brownell. And he expects that to continue. Look next, he says, for federal state and local officials to begin discussing ways to limit junk-food advertising on television. New regulations like that will continue to draw controversy, but momentum—and, increasingly, results--seem to be on their side.

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