Tomorrow is my last day of my public health nutrition summer internship! It is definitely bittersweet. I am blessed to have had this experience, and proud of the work that I’ve done, but I am bummed to leave. I really look up to my supervisors and hope that some day I can make the kind of impact they’re making on public health through nutrition. I’m grateful that they gave me my own project to do, compared to many internships I’ve heard of that mostly consist of, to put it plainly, bitch work. I have also learned a lot about what is actually involved in public health work at a local level, and what it takes to carry out an initiative like changing the products offered in vending machines.
In fact, I’ve been really lucky in that I got to intern in a city that is progressive when it comes to changing the food environment. It is much easier to change nutrition policy here than it is at the federal level. And speaking of which, I was informed today by Mark Bittman’s column that Representative Rosa DeLauro just introduced the SWEET Act to the U.S. House of Representatives, which would charge soda producers a penny per teaspoon of caloric sweetener (sugar or high fructose corn syrup), meaning roughly 10 cents per can of soda.
Taxing soft drinks has been an idea on the horizon for a number of years now to attempt to reduce obesity and promote health. In fact, a number of localities and states now have initiatives in their legislatures to tax sugary drinks. This idea has been panned by many politicians and a lot of the public as well, and understandably so. I suppose people feel like they shouldn’t be punished for drinking soda, which they have the right to do in a free country. They think this is an overextension of the government’s power. What they don’t realize is that government policy that has been in place for decades already, though more subtly, determines what many of us eat. Take soda for instance. If corn (and by extension high fructose corn syrup) weren’t so heavily subsidized, soda wouldn’t be so cheap and abundant, and wouldn’t be so heavily consumed. For that reason, I see such a tax as barely leveling the playing field.
Another complaint is that such a tax would unfairly target the soft drink industry, when no one food can be responsible for obesity; it’s just too much of every food, and not enough exercise. Well that’s not really true. Soda is the one food (if you can call it a food) that is independently linked to obesity. Reputable scientific research has found on numerous occasions that regular soda consumption, even half a can a day, is a risk factor for obesity, and the more you drink, the greater your risk. Besides, soda is also one of the only foods that boasts literally no nutritional value whatsoever. It is only empty calories; some would even argue, and I agree, they’re harmful calories because it’s all sugar. Furthermore, we’re not eating too much of everything, only the bad things like soda and other processed junk food and animal products. We’re eating far too few whole fruits and vegetables.
Another complaint that I’d argue is legitimate is that we don’t know if it would work. That’s true. We don’t. People might replace soda with other empty calories. People might pay the extra 10 cents. But I feel that our nation’s health is so desperate at this point that it’s definitely worth a try. Be comforted by the success of Mexico’s recently implemented soda tax; consumption has gone down! Even if it the policy didn’t reduce soda consumption, which I doubt, the revenue would go to public health initiatives like subsidizing fruits and vegetables or bringing nutrition education to low income schools.
All of my arguments seem futile at the moment, though, because there’s no way this bill is going to pass any time soon; there’s just too much opposition. But to me, the fact that the bill was proposed at all is a sign of progress toward policy more oriented toward health and away from industry. That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned this summer; you have to start somewhere. Remember, things like prohibiting smoking in restaurants once seemed ridiculous too–I’d say a 10 cent per can soda tax is far less drastic.
What’s your view on a soda tax? And what will it take for Congress to pass one?