One of the most detailed investigations carried out into obesity in the US yesterday (1 SEPT) proposed increasing taxes on junk food and heavily sweetened soft drinks, a move that will be aggressively resisted by the multibillion dollar beverage industry.
New state and local government taxes as well as credits for firms setting up healthier grocery shops in poor neighbourhoods are among a range of proposals aimed at tackling a problem that has become a major drain on health spending.
The report, Local Government Actions to Prevent Childhood Obesity, says: “In the United States, 16.3% of children and adolescents between the ages of two and 19 are obese. This epidemic has exploded over just three decades ... The prevalence of obesity is so high that it may reduce the life expectancy of today’s generation of children and diminish the overall quality of their lives.” Jointly written by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, it suggests that states, governors, mayors, community leaders and others take action rather than waiting for a lead from the federal government.
These actions include tax credits for shops, building pavements to encourage walking, creating more bike trails, and limiting video games and other sedentary activities in pre— and after—school clubs.
“Childhood obesity poses a serious threat to health,” the report says.
Congress, while drawing up a bill before the summer as part of President Barack Obama’s drive for healthcare reform, proposed a federal tax on soft drinks.
The congressional budget office estimates that a three—cent tax would generate $24bn over the next four years, which would help pay for health reform.
But it appears to be retreating in the face of an intensive advertising campaign backed by the American Beverage Association, which includes Coca—Cola. In July the ABA set up a new lobbying group, Americans Against Food Taxes.
The group said: “Discriminatory and punitive taxes on soda and juice drinks do not teach our children to have a healthy lifestyle and have no meaningful impact on child obesity or public health.” It has been running an aggressive ad campaign over the summer that shows a family enjoying soft drinks on a camping trip with a voice—over saying: “This is no time for Congress to be adding taxes on the simple pleasures we all enjoy.” The soft drinks market in the US is worth an estimated $115bn a year.
The report says that even if Congress were to act, obesity would still need to be confronted by state and local communities who can impose the kind of measures needed, just as they have in, for example, enforcing regulations requiring children to wear helmets when cycling.
It identifies tackling poor neighbourhoods as being as important as the need for advice on health nutrition and exercise. “Many communities lack ready sources of healthy food choices, such as supermarkets and grocery stores. Or they may not provide safe places for children to walk or play. In such communities, even the most motivated child or adolescent may find it difficult to act in healthy ways.” The report calls on measures to increase access to healthy food and to encourage physical activity. These include: a call for restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus; opening school playgrounds and sports fields to the local communities; altering bus routes or other transportation to increase access to supermarkets and grocery shops; and increasing access to free drinking water in public places as an alternative to sugar—sweetened drinks.
Some communities could divert money designated for crime, if that would be politically easier, the report says. “For example, after—school recreation programmes implemented to increase physical activity with obesity prevention in mind can help meet crime prevention goals by reducing opportunities for youth to be victims or perpetrators of crime.” The American Heart Association last week published research identifying highly sweetened soft drinks as the leading source of added sugars in the US diet.