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Sugar tax absent in childhood obesity campaign


As First Lady Michelle Obama officially launched her campaign against childhood obesity today, a proposal pushed by some health groups was conspicuous by its absence – a federal tax on sugared drinks.

The silence on taxes has been sweet for the U.S. beverage lobby, which – as the Investigative Fund and Center for Public Integrity reported in November -- spent millions of dollars to ward off such talk. Some health advocates have long argued that taxing sugared beverages not only would cut calorie consumption by children but also would raise money for health care and education needs. The industry maintains that such a levy would hurt low-income people the most and would not improve public health.

A proposal for a national excise tax on soft drinks surfaced last year during early deliberations on health care reform. But it did not emerge in any health care legislation. (The plan is still dead, The Los Angeles Times reported this week.)

The beverage industry now aims to position itself as a partner in the administration’s efforts. It announced a voluntary initiative to better label products so that consumers know the full calorie count of every container of soda or juice. Vending machines will display calorie counts. So will fountain beverage machines.

“We always said a tax wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t address the problem of obesity,” said Kevin Keane, senior vice president for the American Beverage Association. Kean said the trade group had been discussing the complex factors contributing to childhood obesity since last year with the First Lady’s office.

Keane said the group also has worked in conjunction with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an initiative of the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, to come up with guidelines for selling beverages in schools. He said the beverage companies support the idea of a federal law that would ban full-calorie soft drinks in school but allow lower-calorie and smaller portions of waters, sodas, teas, juices and sports drinks.

Those other beverages, of course, are a growing source of profit for the soft-drink companies – a trend likely to continue as families grow more conscious of the calories contained in what their children drink.

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