Two Leading Pediatricians: For Children's Sake, Tax Soda

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At the State House this morning, pediatricians and other health-promoters concerned about obesity officially launched a concerted campaign against sugary drinks and candy. Central to their efforts: a bill to remove the sales tax exemption on soda. Here, two leading Massachusetts pediatricians lay out their arguments.

By Dr. Lynda Young and Dr. Barry Zuckerman

Thirty years ago, a typical pediatrician in Massachusetts might see a single obese child in their office every day or so. Now we see as many as five a day and another four to five who are overweight.

Some of these young patients are already suffering from the health effects of obesity: high blood pressure, heart and liver issues, or Type II diabetes. If these trends are not reversed, many of these children will be destined to live shorter lives than their parents.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]'As pediatricians, we have never seen a medical problem of the breadth and scope of obesity.'[/module]

As pediatricians, we have never seen a medical problem of the breadth and scope of obesity. Over the last 15 years alone, obesity rates in Massachusetts have doubled, with one in every three children now either overweight or obese, leaving the state with the 33rd worst childhood obesity rate in the nation. Meanwhile, obesity-related medical costs will add some $1.8 billion a year to the Commonwealth’s already strained health care system.

Preventing and reversing the obesity crisis has become a paramount medical concern for pediatricians across the Commonwealth. As physicians and physician-educators, we see the devastating impact of obesity every day, despite our daily warnings to patients, their families and the public about the importance of taking immediate action to prevent unhealthy weight gain.

One opportunity before us right now is legislation to eliminate the tax exempt status on soft drinks and candy. Nearly fifty years ago, when Massachusetts adopted a sales tax, it decided to exempt the sale of food items. Other essentials of daily life, such as clothing, were exempted as well.

Of course, this was years before the obesity epidemic began to sweep the country. Today, soft drinks can hardly be considered essential food items. To the contrary, overconsumption of sugary beverages has become a major threat to public health, and obesity-related conditions will likely eclipse smoking as the leading preventable cause of death.

Most states have already recognized this. Today Massachusetts is one of only 17 states that do not apply a tax of any kind on soft drinks. It is time to bring Massachusetts in line with the rest of the country.

Why are sugary beverages our focus? Just one soda contains more sugar than most young people should consume in an entire day. Sugary drinks are empty calories, are non-essential and the average American consumes between 45-50 gallons of them each year. Research shows that each additional daily serving of sugared soda increases a child’s risk of obesity by 60 percent.

[module align="left" width="half" type="pull-quote"]'To be sure, even the modest step of eliminating the tax exemption on soda will arouse accusations of “nanny state” overreach.'[/module]

The legislation to eliminate the exemption, filed by Rep. Kay Kahn (D-Newton) on behalf of the Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition, is not perfect – but it is an important first step. Yes, we and many of our colleagues would prefer to institute a new tax that would deter the purchase of sugary beverages. However, simple elimination of the existing sales tax exemption on soft drinks will do three critical things:

It will eliminate preferential tax treatment for products that should not enjoy the status of essential food items.

It will generate more than $50 million in revenue that could be directed towards anti-obesity programming to help kids.

It will send an important message that Massachusetts will no longer tolerate an outmoded tax policy that is harmful to the health of our children.

To be sure, even the modest step of eliminating the tax exemption on soda will arouse accusations of “nanny state” overreach. But we are not advocating that these items be banned. What we are saying is that tax policy in Massachusetts should no longer favor items that are fueling a public health crisis and a financial disaster. As responsible physicians caring for the Commonwealth’s children, we can hardly say less.

Dr. Lynda Young, a Worcester pediatrician, is president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, the statewide association of physicians with more than 23,000 members. Dr. Barry Zuckerman is chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center.

This program aired on December 15, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.