Professor: Taxing sugar-sweetened drinks can help fight obesity epidemic

Dr. Michael Long, assistant professor at the Milken Institute of Public Health of George Washington University, speaks during his lecture on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. (Rebecca Newman/The Daily Campus)

A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could be a cost-effective method of fighting the obesity epidemic, said Dr. Michael Long, assistant professor at the Milken Institute of Public Health of George Washington University at a speech Friday afternoon.

Long, researched sugary beverages for the Childhood Obesity Intervention Cost Effectiveness Study (CHOICES) for the past seven years. 

CHOICES evaluated the 40 most relevant childhood obesity interventions in the United States in order to find a model for tackling the obesity and diabetes epidemic—one of the biggest health issue of the late 20th and early 21st century in the country.

“17 percent of youth in the United States have obesity,” Long said.

The focus of Long’s study was on how to reduce society’s health expenditures while improving overall well-being. Failing to consider cost-effectiveness can lead to inclusion of strategies with a high cost and limited impact, Long said. 

“I think we need a whole basket of policy changes to happen, and if we fill the basket with the wrong things, then we can’t get the right ones to work,” Long said.

The sugar-sweetened beverage excise tax study is the most controversial of the 40 cases tackled by CHOICES. Consumption of these beverages increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, leading to increased healthcare costs and early deaths. 

In contrast to sales taxes collected from the consumer when they purchase sugar-sweetened beverages, this per-volume excise tax would apply to producers and distributors. It would, however, be incorporated into the shelf prices of beverages with added caloric sweeteners, including sport drinks, fruit drinks, and sodas.

By using a simulation model, CHOICES estimated that a $0.01 per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would raise their prices by 16 percent in 2014 dollars and would cost $51 million nationally in its first year.

It was also estimated that the price increase would reduce the consumption of these beverages by 20 percent, leading to a 0.15 BMI reduction in youth and a 0.08 BMI reduction in adults at minimum.

“This actually turns out to be the most conservative estimate of all the approaches we used,” Long said. 

According to Dr. Long, the study shows a $0.01 tax on the production of sugar-sweetened beverages can prevent obesity, save lives, and reduce healthcare costs for the country.

Over a 10-year period, the tax would result in $23.6 billion in healthcare cost savings, and annually, the tax would generate revenue totaling $12.5 billion. 

“Sugar-sweetened beverages are half of all the added sugar intake in the American diet,” he said.

Several students, including Jacob Raggon, a first semester accounting major, agreed. 

“It seems the long-term and short-term benefits can provide a very easy way to solve the obesity epidemic in America,” Raggon said.


Helen Stec is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at helen.stec@uconn.edu.