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Patrick Basham and John Luik’s soft drink tax study, Washington Legal Foundation, June 5, 2009

Patrick Basham and John Luik
The movement to implement a “fat tax” dates back to a 1994 New York Times Op-Ed article by Yale University’s Kelly Brownell. The latest call for some version of this tax – a federal levy on soft drinks – comes from Professor Brownell and New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden in an opinion piece for the New England Journal of Medicine, and in testimony to the Senate Finance Committee by Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The Senate Finance Committee is considering such a tax as a way to pay for health care reform.

Before the nation’s food police begin fantasizing about a thinner population, coupled with sizeable new streams of revenue to be used for government-centered health care reform, a closer look at five key problems with the soft drinks tax proposal is warranted.
Scientific Evidence Lacking

The justification for a soft drinks tax is founded on the claim that such beverages are a major contributor to obesity, particularly in children. In his recent presentation to the Senate Finance Committee, CSPI’s Jacobson claimed that “soft drinks have been a major contributor to obesity in recent decades.”1 Brownell, along with Frieden, President Obama’s choice to head the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), claim that “sugar-sweetened beverages…may be the single largest drive of the obesity epidemic.”2

This claim depends first on the assumption that there is an epidemic of childhood obesity and that obesity in childhood results in adult morbidity and premature mortality. While a full examination of these assumptions are beyond the scope of this paper, fat tax supporters should review a recent CDC analysis of obesity prevalence in U.S. children and adolescents for the last decade which found “no statistically significant trend... for either boys or girls” in prevalence since 1999. 3 The authors have also vigorously challenged the assumptions elsewhere.4

The most frequently cited support for the claim that soft drinks contribute to obesity is a 2001 study by Ludwig et al. claiming that the “consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with obesity in children.”5 Yet, their study in fact fails to support such a claim. The results show no difference in the Body Mass Index (BMI) data of the children who consumed the most and the least amounts of sugar-sweetened drinks. Further, there was no statistically significant change in the incidence of obesity in the study population. Moreover, design flaws prevent the study from determining whether the changes in weight were the result of the beverages consumed or the behaviors linked with this consumption. Finally, the authors themselves concede that “there is no clear evidence that consumption of sugar per se affects food intake in a unique manner or causes obesity. Download PDF


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